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In Utopia

By Annalee Newitz

My old friend Joe Sartelle (www.sartelle.org) used to ask people what their "textual preferences" were--a playful version of the commonly heard "What's your sexual preference?" In a way, Joe's is a far more intimate question. One's gender choice in sex partners reveals almost nothing--save what kinds of bodies you enjoy--but one's choice of texts, of stories, can summarize an entire personality.

My greatest and earliest textual love is science fiction. Nothing has the power to move me more than a well-crafted tale about an alien world or future. And in times of great stress, I turn to science fiction for solace, for alternative ways of thinking.

Last week, I was lucky enough to spend some time talking with Ursula Le Guin, whose radical, speculative fiction has been my preference since I was a kid. Her most recent novels, The Telling (2000) and The Other Wind (2001), both offer powerful stories of hope in the face of war and terrorism on alien worlds. Le Guin is also the author of celebrated works of social protest in the form of science fiction like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), and Always Coming Home (1985).

When the future feels horrifying, one wants to hear about utopia, and Le Guin is often called a utopian writer. I wondered what a utopian would think about America's current "war on terrorism." Laughing, Le Guin said, "Don't call me utopian. Utopia is always something you can't get to because it doesn't exist. I prefer to be called hopeful. We can hope that we might get out of this mess, or that decent behavior might take place, because, well, it does sometimes."

And that's where fiction can be useful. It invites us to speculate about other narrative options. In The Telling, Le Guin's protagonist is Sutty, a scholar who comes to a planet called Aka whose government has been taken over by techno-worshipping capitalists known as The Corporation. Sutty is perplexed by the monoculture of Aka until she finds out that The Corporation has been violently suppressing the spiritual people who follow the old ways of the planet. These people have maintained an anti-corporate, ecologically balanced culture in the face of brutal oppression, and have even created a massive, secret library of books that contradict The Corporation's views. Sutty learns that Aka's destiny is hardly in the hands of The Corporation, and resistance is not futile.

How does Le Guin hope that her people on Earth will respond to oppression and violence? "I hope that this doesn't lead us to imitate our enemies," Le Guin said quietly. "I was a kid during World War II and I remember how awful it was. . . . Even in America, which was a pretty easy home front, war diminished life. It diminishes criticism and free thought, because those things aren't patriotic. And it results in silence when there is injustice, like sending the Japanese to internment camps. I don't want to be dragged back into that mud."

We talked about Le Guin's latest book, The Other Wind, which is set on Earthsea, a planet where ancient wizards worked a spell that allows people to remain immortal after death. The dead live in a place called the Dry Land, and as the book opens, they are begging to be released. They want to die, to end. "I want to rub people's face in death," said Le Guin. "The idea of craving personal immortality, the way Christianity does, is really horrible to me. It seems perverse." In the end, the characters in The Other Wind must undo the spell, and accept the ways of another culture on Earthsea, one based on the idea of reincarnation rather than immortality. "There is no one right way to think about death," Le Guin told me.

But perhaps there are wrong ways. After all, what is it but the belief in an "immortal soul" after death that drives us to devalue life on Earth? Believing in life after death can be a comfort, but it can also lead people away from treasuring and protecting the world we live in. As Le Guin said to me, "There are other possibilities. We need to leave the door open rather than slamming it." It's possible that this world is all we have. Maybe we should build a heaven here rather than dying for it.


Annalee Newitz (ekumen@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who cried at the end of 'The Dispossessed.'

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From the September 26-October 3, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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