Quotable: Ursula K. Le Guin on hegemony in science fiction

“Finally, one of the major historical themes of the modern world, the destruction and assimilation by western industrialism of every culture it comes in contact with, has been represented in science fiction for a long time. In the pulps it mostly appeared in march tempo with tubas: the Triumph of Science over Stupid Superstition, Man’s Conquest of the Universe, Anglo Hero vs. Alien Slime, Dick White and his Ray-Gun against the Mongloobian Hordes. Leukocentrism was no worse in science fiction than anywhere else, but no better, either. I remember, not too clearly, a story about some aliens who came to look humanity over to see if we would make good slaves; the smart-American-white-male-hero presented some Eskimos to the aliens as typical humans. The Eskimos did nothing but grunt illiterately and smell fishy and chew blubber–we all know Eskimos are incapable of anything else–and so the aliens went away to wait a few millennia till humans got civilized enough to be worth enslaving. I believe that story was published in the sixties. We’ve come a long way, Baby. Some of us.”

–Ursula K. Le Guin, “Finding the Patterns”, from the introduction to The Norton Book of Science Fiction

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4 Responses to Quotable: Ursula K. Le Guin on hegemony in science fiction

  1. Cliff says:

    I remember starting to watch the American Sci-Fi channel version of Earthsea and turning it off almost immediately when it became clear that almost all the main characters were being played by white actors when the books are very clear that the main Earthsea culture is dark skinned and only one savage, fanatical raider island were white. Colour blind casting is often a good thing, but for a story that was explicitely making a point about the usual white equals good black equals evil colour coding of most epic fantasy it was inexcusable.

    • Sabina Becker says:

      Yes, Le Guin herself complained about that:


      Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow. In my first big science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the only person from Earth is a black man, and everybody else in the book is Inuit (or Tibetan) brown. In the two fantasy novels the miniseries is “based on,” everybody is brown or copper-red or black, except the Kargish people in the East and their descendants in the Archipelago, who are white, with fair or dark hair. The central character Tenar, a Karg, is a white brunette. Ged, an Archipelagan, is red-brown. His friend, Vetch, is black. In the miniseries, Tenar is played by Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk, the only person in the miniseries who looks at all Asian. Ged and Vetch are white.

      My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

      The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I’m white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.

      Apparently, getting a “petulant white kid” to play Ged was the very opposite of what she’d hoped to see happening. Someone either didn’t read the books very closely, or disregarded them willfully.

  2. Beating up on Sci Fi Channels’ drek is just far too easy.

    I imagine the casting decision had something to do with the perceived demographic of the intended audience. If so, the outcome is ironic: no one watched it anyway.

    This fiasco of a film is also a perfect example of why one should “always read the book before seeing the movie”. And in Le Guin’s case, one should read the book, skip the movie and look for another one of her novels.

    • Sabina Becker says:

      Absolutely…and that’s what I would do anyway. It’s a 1000-channel universe, and 999 of them are crap, so I spend way more time reading than watching TV.

      BTW, I’m glad you didn’t come to ream me out over the unauthorized use of that old magazine cover–it illustrates perfectly what hegemony in SF looked like, back in the “good” old days.

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