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Ursula Le Guin was a born intellectual. And we mean born: she was the product of two life-long academics and their scholastic lifestyle. Her father was one of America's pioneer anthropologists, Alfred L. Kroeber, who established the second department ever in that field (in the United States) at Berkeley. Her mother was Theodora Kroeber, a writer best known for her ground-breaking anthropological book about the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe of California (Ishi in Two Worlds).
Huh. Is it any surprise that Le Guin had some astute anthropological observational skillz?
And we can even make a case for nurture over nature. Even though her early years overlapped with those of the Great Depression, Le Guin reflected that her childhood was remarkably comfortable. Her parents owned a house in Berkeley "filled with books, music, friends, and conversation," and she was encouraged, along with her three older brothers, to value the ability to think, question, and enjoy learning. So she was raised in an environment that valued intellectual thought and experimentation.
All of this intellectual encouragement led Le Guin to her astounding ability to observe bits of society around her, and then to take it a step further and make it into a future that seems imminent yet impossible. For her, science fiction (the genre in which she made her name) was just a prediction of what would happen should a current trend be exaggerated beyond belief:
Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. "If this goes on, this is what will happen." A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. (Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness)
It almost seems like she did the exact opposite of what her esteemed parents did. They researched and examined past cultures and people, whereas Le Guin observed the society around her and prescribed a future for it. In fact, she flat-out said that she uses those types of studies in her work extensively, which is what sets her apart from her counterparts in the sci-fi genre:
The "hard"-science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology – that's no science to them, that's soft stuff. They're not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I'm creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that. (Le Guin, 2013)
Maybe that's why she would get "prickly and combative" when called a sci-fi writer, because it pigeonholes her inappropriately. (In one interview, she asserted: "Don't shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don't fit, because I'm all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions." Dang, Ursula. You tell 'em.)
In her Left-Handed Address, she didn't so much ascribe a fictional future as create a metaphorical world that helps to describe society as she saw it:
And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. (68)
So when it comes to the commencement address, this science-fiction-as-reality doesn't really come into play as much as it does in her novels, but her astute observations about society's ills are more than obvious.
She was fed up with women having to play by masculine rules, and being held down by de facto sexism. She was given an opportunity (one of her first, at least) to address these problems and try to encourage a large group to make a change for the better. By empowering her listeners to pursue their own version of success, as women, Le Guin was actively preventing one of her potential science-fiction futures from becoming an unfortunate reality.
Even though, in the right circles, Ursula Le Guin was well known as an outspoken feminist voice throughout the last several decades, her name lacked the recognition and infamy of other women from the same time, like Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan. In an interview, Gloria Steinem herself was asked about writers who were most underrated or unappreciated, and she said,
Too many to name, but I think of Bessie Head from South Africa, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in India, and also writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin, who were said to write science fiction, though their male counterparts were called magical realists. (New York Times, 2015)
Steinem was asserting that Le Guin's own voice—one that had been a positive proponent for women since the 1970s—had been undermined and marginalized because of her gender. That's…probably not too far off-base of an accusation.
The fact that Le Guin was categorized as a science fiction author (a genre often dismissed as frivolous), rather than a magical realist like her male counterparts, speaks to this marginalization. Women authors all too often have a hard time getting taken seriously, and their messages are often lost to obscurity.
Le Guin insisted that even though she was slow on the uptake when it came to the feminist literary movement, it came along at just the right time for her to finally and fully embrace her own voice as an author:
Then came literary feminism, which was a tremendous problem and gift to me. I had to… handle it. And I wasn't sure I could, because I'm not much good on theory. Go away, just let me write. But the fact is, I was getting stuck in my writing. I couldn't keep pretending I was a man. And so feminism came along at just the right moment for me. [The women's movement] said to me, Hey, guess what? You're a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don't have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don't have, and that they're worth writing and reading about. (Le Guin, 2013)
Sound familiar? That's why her Left-Handed Commencement address is so critical, and widely admired. In a time when women were being relegated to second-best options, she delivered a speech as woman, speaking like a woman, in a public, academic forum. That just hadn't been done before—at least not so openly.
One of Le Guin's most admirable traits was her ferocity. When she sensed an injustice she attacked, vocally and publicly, to draw attention to her cause—whether it was feminism, her love of her craft, or any kind of unfairness being perpetuated on a grand scale.
Basically: when Ursula K. Le Guin decided to take a stand, she really went all the way.
She had a firm and well-developed moral compass that she used to guide almost all of her actions in a political and ethical arena, the likes of which we don't see all that often outside of fierce advocates and activists. Keep this in mind when reading her almost-jovial sounding Left-Handed Commencement Address, and see if you can sense some of this passion simmering just under the surface of her words.