“Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” (2019). Cast: Interviews: Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Samuel Delany, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Theodora Goss, Adrienne Maree Brown, Annalee Newitz, China Miéville, Vonda N. McIntyre, Julie Phillips, Charles Le Guin, Theodore Le Guin, Elisabeth Le Guin, Caroline Le Guin, Karen Biestman, James Clifford. Archive Material: Alfred Kroeber. Director: Arwen Curry. Screenplay: Arwen Curry Web site. Trailer.
Various fields of artistic expression often go through radical conversions as a result of the visionary works of a handful – or sometimes even just one – maverick figure. Through the singular works of these individuals, entire genres are frequently transformed. In filmmaking, for example, the name Stanley Kubrick comes to mind. In music, it’s the Beatles. And, in science fiction literature, many often cite the writings of author Ursula K. Le Guin, the subject of the engaging documentary, “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.”
Director Arwen Curry’s in-depth documentary of this insightful writer provides viewers with a razor-sharp look at an author whose body of work drastically changed the sci-fi landscape, reconfiguring it from a genre that wasn’t taken seriously to one that has become one of the most respected, creative and prescient in the field of contemporary writing. Through interviews with the author not long before her death in 2018 and a number of her peers, we see a picture emerge of someone who did much to change how sci-fi literature was viewed, along with what constituted accepted and respected work in that field.
While in college at Radcliffe and for a time thereafter, Le Guin was recognized and regarded by editors and publishers as an excellent writer – but not as one who was especially marketable. The reason: at the time, science fiction/fantasy was regarded as pulp fiction, not looked upon credibly as serious literature, and her writing was seen as too high brow to effectively fit into that market. Also, it was a field largely dominated by White men, a demographic that didn’t match who she was. She was thus essentially written off as a square peg who didn’t fit into any of the established round holes.
Le Guin wouldn’t have it, though. She was part of a group of new sci-fi/fantasy authors who were not cut from the traditional cloth. This new breed consisted largely of women and minorities who had different perspectives and, consequently, different stories to tell, often with unconventional outlooks, and Le Guin was at the forefront of that movement. This resulted in large part from the influence of her father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who specialized in the history and culture of California’s Native American peoples. His work on how White culture led to the disappearance of indigenous people inspired his daughter’s thinking and was reflected in the ideas she sought to express through her works, such as The Ekumen series.
As illustrated by the foregoing, Le Guin’s works often dealt with many themes that had not been previously addressed in literature, particularly through the lens of science fiction/fantasy, where they were expressed metaphorically. Many of her works delved into thought experiments, prompting readers to ponder the issues she raised and not always providing definitive answers or resolutions. For instance, she often dealt with scenarios involving the value and importance of freedom from restrictions, but such stories also simultaneously asked, “Can such freedom be realistically maintained?”
Le Guin is often remembered as an author who addressed feminist and gender equality issues in her works. However, this came about somewhat slowly where feminism was concerned, given that her own personal views on women’s rights didn’t always align with the radicalism of the women’s rights movement. She was a wife and mother and not ashamed of it, as evidenced through interviews with her husband Charles and her children Elisabeth, Caroline and Theodore. This prompted Le Guin to be somewhat defensive in the face of the movement’s more activist leaders who were disappointed at her lack of more definitive support. Her personal life came into conflict with the changing views of society, and it took some time for her sensibilities to catch up. This process caused her to rethink her views and expand her perspective, qualities subsequently reflected in later writings. She came to be an author who wasn’t afraid to question and reassess her own values and make adjustments accordingly in her later works. Such philosophical and literary evolution thus became another hallmark of her outlook and practice.
Ultimately Le Guin’s works were seen as radically experimental, something she scrupulously employed in her writing and in the advice she imparted to others, observing that “Every story must make its own rules – and obey them.” In doing so, she opened the doors for other aspiring writers to do the same, and, in this way, she influenced the works of all writers, not just those in the genres in which she specialized. At the same time, her efforts forced sci-fi and fantasy out of the closet and into the light of respectability as legitimate literature. As one of the film’s commentators notes, the Harry Potter series wouldn’t exist were it not for the doors Le Guin opened through such works as the EarthSea series of novels.
Throughout her career, both in her writings and otherwise, Le Guin became more outspoken in her views and rarely held back in making her thoughts known. In 2014, for instance, she received the National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. In her acceptance speech, she was candid about her feelings on the changing nature of the publishing industry (especially the role of Amazon), particularly for its emphasis on profits at the expense of supporting literary artistry. This, as in many other aspects of her life, reflected her willingness to speak out on issues that were important to her and that others were reluctant to talk about.
Such qualities came to characterize the views and writings of this visionary author, one who reset the chess board for the many who followed in her wake. She expanded the scope of what constituted not only science fiction but literature in general, and generations of writers and readers have her to thank for it. And, thanks to this superb documentary, we have an excellent record of those accomplishments to chronicle just how much of an impact she had.
Given the approach Le Guin took in her writing, she was obviously attempting to do more with it than simply tell good stories. Her works became vehicles for addressing issues that went beyond merely playing out entertaining narratives. There was purpose behind her words, using them as tools to make meaningful statements, in essence pushing the perceived limitations of what a writer is typically expected to do. But that’s important in light of what she believed she was supposed to do through her art. Her efforts were genuine, intentional acts of creativity, initiatives in the spirit of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our beliefs in materializing what we seek to manifest.
Her writings embodied one of the key principles of this philosophy – that of pushing the limitations of creativity. This applies not only in terms of the content of her works, but also in terms of what they were intended to evoke among readers and, by extension, in the world at large. The impact of truly great literature is not limited to just the words on the page but on what those words inspire among those who take them to heart and subsequently put into practice. Le Guin lit the match with her prose, and the sparks took on a life of their own, both in the writing community and the wider world of which she and her peers were a part.
A big part of pushing limits involved providing different perspectives to audiences that may not have been previously exposed to them. Her efforts to make science fiction more respectable, for example, was in direct contrast to the prevailing view that it was little more than pulpy, campy, even tawdry schlock. That aim was bolstered tremendously by her inclusion of more sophisticated notions and characters in her work, individuals who possessed wisdom and insights and not merely stockpiles of ray guns and armies of robots. Given that few writings expressed such ideas before she put pen to paper, it’s no wonder that editors and publishers believed her works didn’t stand a chance against the typical fare the industry was producing – that is, until they discovered that there was an eager audience awaiting books like those of Le Guin and others. Alternate perspectives thus pushed the limits that opened up new and previously unforeseen markets, and it all began with the imaginative ideas and groundbreaking beliefs that were rolling around in Le Guin’s consciousness.
Through her works, Le Guin used her art to raise awareness for new ideas. She inspired readers to explore new territory, producing empowering works that helped them realize they had more going for themselves than they had been led to believe. She introduced audiences to individuals of far different character, helping to build bridges to different cultures, traditions and practices. And she exposed the unenlightened, albeit metaphorically, to the challenges, plights and inequities faced by others, such as those affecting Native Americans, as prompted by her interest in the aforementioned work done by her father. She believed these ideas could be conveyed through her writing, and she proceeded to make it happen.
When all of the foregoing is taken together, it becomes apparent that there was a deliberateness behind what Le Guin was doing. It’s as if she were fulfilling a destiny, one designed to achieve certain objectives, both among her readers and her fellow writers. She opened new vistas for each constituency, setting an example for them all to draw upon. This is a practice in conscious creation terms known as value fulfillment, wherein we employ our beliefs and seek to act as our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Le Guin certainly personified those values and made the most of them through her achievements, an accomplishment we should all hope to emulate.
This superbly crafted chronicle provides an excellent overview of the author’s life, her inventive writing, her visionary outlook and how they all integrated to create an impressively prolific and inventive body of work. Through numerous insightful interviews with the author, as well as incisive commentary from biographer Julie Phillips, Le Guin’s family, and an array of such noteworthy authors as Margaret Atwood, Samuel Delany, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and Theodora Goss, among others, viewers are given a comprehensive look at Le Guin’s groundbreaking repertoire. The film deftly explores her evolution both as a writer and as a thought leader, one who ultimately had subtle but considerable impact in helping to shape public opinion on a variety of topics while simultaneously enabling aspiring authors to experiment in an art form often restricted by convention and a publishing industry obsessed with profit motives. The narrative is beautifully enhanced by a wealth of gorgeous animation, enlivening Le Guin’s material in ways that mere words cannot. This is must-see viewing for devotees of the author and an excellent introduction to the works of a writer whose substantial fan base could always use more followers of her thoughtful poetry and prose.
If I had any complaints with this film, it would be that it sometimes tends to give short shrift to some of the author’s books. For me, that’s particularly true with Le Guin’s epic The Lathe of Heaven, which is relegated to little more than a passing reference. Given this work’s tremendous popularity and its status as a beloved 1980 cult movie (one of the films featured in my debut book, Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies), it genuinely deserved more attention than it received. In the overall scheme of things, however, this is somewhat insignificant compared to everything else the picture has to offer.
“Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” is readily available for those who are interested in seeing it. The film originally aired as part of the PBS series American Masters in 2019. Since then, the documentary has played (and still does) at film festivals, such as the Brooklyn Sci-Fi Film Festival, where I screened it late last year. It’s also been featured in numerous special showings at bookstores and libraries and is available for streaming online.
Trailblazers don’t come along very often, but, when they do, they’re worth paying attention to. They may not be readily recognized at first, but they often have much to say, much of it groundbreaking and revelatory. Whether it’s individuals working in the arts or some other field of endeavor, they often carry with them the capacity to be game changers, and virtually always for the better. Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those pioneering innovators, someone who set many of us on a new course, be it as artists, activists or advocates. She set the kind of example that the world could use more of these days. But, at the very least, we can be thankful for having her in our midst for as long as we did – and for the lasting legacy that she left behind, one whose impact will undoubtedly be felt for years to come.
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