Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin: Stream Online (for a Limited Time) a New Documentary Exploring the Life & Work of the Legendary Sci-Fi Writer

“There are a lot of dystopias around these days,” writes Kim Stan­ley Robin­son in his recent essay “Dystopia Now.” This, of course, “makes sense, because we have a lot of fears about the future.” We also have a lot of fears about the present, which get mapped onto the future in dystopi­an fic­tion, a genre that has become “part of our all-encom­pass­ing hope­less­ness.”

Dystopias feel famil­iar, even com­fort­ing, in that no mat­ter how bad things are, they are per­haps not quite as bad yet as the dark­est visions of sci­ence fic­tion. We might still change course if we can final­ly heed the warn­ings. But lit­er­ary and cin­e­mat­ic pes­simism, either as grim escapism or a wake-up call, “has done its job,” Robin­son argues, “it’s old news now, per­haps it’s self-indul­gence to stay stuck in that place any more.”

Anoth­er leg­endary sci-fi writer, Ursu­la K. Le Guin agreed. “We keep writ­ing dystopias,” she remarked in a 2017 essay, “instead of envi­sion­ing a bet­ter world.” Le Guin, who passed away last year, wrote of “ambigu­ous,” “clear­sight­ed,” and “trou­bled” utopias. And she prac­ticed, over the course of her long career, what Robin­son calls our cur­rent “task at hand”—“to imag­ine ways for­ward to that bet­ter place.” We may not see much rea­son for opti­mism, but utopi­an think­ing, “is real­is­tic: things could be bet­ter.”

An anar­chist, fem­i­nist, and envi­ron­men­tal­ist, Le Guin might be called an “ide­o­log­i­cal” writer, but not in the deroga­to­ry sense the word implies. All artists have ide­o­log­i­cal frame­works, whether they’re aware of them or not, and Le Guin was very much aware of the lens­es she used to see the world, what Robin­son defines as “the imag­i­nary rela­tion­ship to our real con­di­tions of exis­tence.”

She con­scious­ly restruc­tured her work to imag­ine new worlds in terms out­side the oppres­sive­ly hege­mon­ic norms that gov­ern ours, norms cre­at­ed by what she called the “yang” desire for absolute con­trol.  “I had to rethink my entire approach to writ­ing fic­tion,” she says above in Worlds of Ursu­la K. Le Guin, a new PBS doc­u­men­tary direct­ed by Arwen Cur­ry, avail­able free to stream for a lim­it­ed time.

“It was impor­tant,” Le Guin goes on, “to think about priv­i­lege and pow­er and dom­i­na­tion in terms of gen­der, which is some­thing sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy had not done.” In so doing, Le Guin showed her read­ers it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine func­tion­al, believ­able, even attain­able alter­na­tives to stark real­i­ties that seem too deeply entrenched to ever change. She showed oth­er sci-fi and fan­ta­sy writ­ers that they could do the same.

The doc­u­men­tary fea­tures appear­ances from con­tem­po­raries and suc­ces­sors to Le Guin’s world-build­ing bril­liance, includ­ing Mar­garet Atwood, Samuel R. Delany, Analee Newitz, Chi­na Miéville, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell, all of whom cite her as an influ­ence and inspi­ra­tion. (“I read A Wiz­ard of Earth­sea,” says Mitchell, “and things rearranged in my head.”)

In a way, read­ing Le Guin for the first time feels like being giv­en a pair of VR glass­es through which to see what’s tru­ly pos­si­ble, if only we had the will to col­lec­tive­ly imag­ine it into being. She did not think of utopi­anism as an eter­nal state of per­fec­tion or a thought exper­i­ment, but as a “process,”as Kel­ly Lynn Thomas writes at The Mil­lions, of “reflec­tion and adjust­ment, learn­ing and growth… com­mu­ni­ca­tion and respect, self-aware­ness and hon­esty.”

Though the word is typ­i­cal­ly deployed to describe dan­ger­ous naivete or pie-in-the-sky think­ing, utopi­anism need not be a grasp­ing after “ratio­nal human con­trol of human life,” Le Guin wrote. Utopias always con­tain some mea­sure of dystopia, she rec­og­nized. But she pro­posed that we find bal­ance by imag­in­ing what she calls “yin utopias,” spaces that involve “accep­tance of imper­ma­nence and imper­fec­tion, a patience with uncer­tain­ty and the makeshift, a friend­ship with water, dark­ness, and the earth.”

Such are the ideals that informed her vast imag­i­na­tive out­put over the course of near­ly 60 years, includ­ing 21 nov­els, 11 vol­umes of short sto­ries, essay col­lec­tions, children’s books, and poet­ry. In Worlds of Ursu­la K. Le Guin, we learn how she devel­oped and refined her cre­ative vision, and her cri­tiques of total­iz­ing “yang” utopi­anism and its despair­ing oppo­site. The film is avail­able to stream in full online for a lim­it­ed time. Watch it above or on PBS’s Amer­i­can Mas­ters page before it’s gone.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cel­e­brate the Life & Writ­ing of Ursu­la K. Le Guin (R.I.P.) with Clas­sic Radio Drama­ti­za­tions of Her Sto­ries

Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Dai­ly Rou­tine: The Dis­ci­pline That Fueled Her Imag­i­na­tion

Ursu­la K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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