In Utopia

My old friend Joe Sartelle (www.sartelle.org) used to ask people what their textual preferences were. In a way, that is a far more intimate question than the commonly heard "What is your sexual preference?" 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 about alternative cultures 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), offer powerful stories of hope in the face of war and terrorism on other planets. Le Guin is also the author of celebrated works of social-protest science fiction, such as "The Left Hand of Darknes"s (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."

It's hard to imagine decent behavior when Bush is threatening war. It feels like there are no alternatives, no other ways the story could end.

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 ruthless, 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 peaceful, spiritual people who follow the old ways of the planet. Those people have maintained an anticorporate, 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. As Sutty learns more, it's clear 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. Everything was war-colored -- it's a dirty mud color. 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 about 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," Le Guin said. "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 and making sure our cultures exist for thousands more years. If we discarded our belief in immortality, we might also discard our casualness about killing. 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 die for it.

Annalee Newitz (ekumen@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who cried at the end of The Dispossessed. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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