I had not read about Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in November until I came across it online in a British newspaper yesterday morning.
The 85-year-old author of many notable science fiction novels and short stories used her barely five-minute speech to thank a few people before launching into a withering blast against the literary establishment for its ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction writers, the corporatization of book publishing, the acquiescence of authors in the selling of their works as commodities, along with some fierce jabs at Amazon for its attempt to dominate book publishing and her own publishers for their corporate greed.
Most readers of mainstream fiction will not necessarily know Le Guin, unless they came across her EarthSea trilogy when they were young or encountered her short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in a high school literature anthology.
That story alone reserves her a lasting place in the hearts and troubled conscience of past and future generations of intelligent adolescents. The parable tells of a kind and peaceful city whose inhabitants’ happiness is based on the suffering of a single child, locked up in a broom closet, terrified, alone in the dark, and those few, rare children and adults who, ashamed, walk away from the city into the forests and the mountains.
It is the writers of imaginary futures that will help our increasingly fearful and corporately ruled society imagine a way out of our technology dominated present, Le Guin told an audience that probably consisted of none or few of the science fiction and fantasy writers she lauded and many of the publishers and so-called realist writers she disdained.
They were fierce words from a frail woman writer of genre fiction, one of the few who had ever set foot outside the literary ghetto.
Science fiction’s origins in the pulp magazines of the ’30s and ’40s, with paper-thin plots and penny a word payments to authors, was like a mark of shame that was carried into the third and fourth generations, long after many brilliant practitioners had raised the standards for imagination and skill to a high level.
I came into a great inheritance of books from science fiction’s Golden Age, the period that began roughly post-World War II and included Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
In my teens I encountered the New Wave and a group of experimental and literary writers such as Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. There were the brilliant eccentrics, among them the strange and ceaselessly imaginative R.A. Lafferty, the perfectly beautiful Cordwainer Smith and the endlessly mined- for-movies Philip K. Dick.
Many of these marginalized writers were complete masters of many fields of science or engineering. In their spare time they studied history, philosophy and religion, wrote books on architecture and astronomy, William Shakespeare and James Joyce.
They were, I would wager, more widely read and broadly educated than their mainstream counterparts. And they brought their interests into their readers’ imaginations and opened them up to a rich cultural experience beyond the small towns where they lay in their silent bedrooms with a stack of magazines and a pile of books, imbibing worlds, yes, and galaxies.
Ursula Le Guin created some of those worlds — complex, grown-up imaginings that tested our small-town mores and conventions and made us more questioning citizens of the society we found ourselves stranded in, the city we could not walk away from.