Several months ago, when I had driven a friend home from a meeting, he noticed some science fiction magazines in my back seat as he was getting out. “Do you read science fiction?” he said, and I said I didn’t, that my son had borrowed the magazines from a friend. I asked if he did. “No,” he said, a trifle wistfully. “I used to. Now reality’s gone beyond science fiction.” (The meeting we were returning from was of a nuclear disarmament group.) He had said goodnight, and started to walk away, when he came back and opened the door again. “There’s one book you ought to read,” he said. Then, for perhaps the tenth time, someone recommended a book to me by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Until about a year ago, I had worked for more than five years as an assistant in a university chemistry library. Since I knew nothing about chemistry, most of the graduate students had little to say to me. Now and then one would find out I was a literature buff, and sit down to tell me about science fiction. Invariably his interest had started back in childhood, with comic books and the kind of pulp magazines my son had borrowed from his friend, then moved on to paperback novels. His early interest had been in gadgetry, the technological marvels that could do spectacular things, but as he continued to read he found storytellers whose power far exceeded that of writers who dwelled on gadgets. By concentrating on that single genre, he had given himself a classical education in the varieties of literature, from cheap trash to high art, and had arrived at a point in his life when he didn’t read much science fiction anymore, mostly just new titles from a select group of authors. One of those authors was always Ursula K. LeGuin.

I loved those conversations, not because I had any real interest in science fiction, but because I enjoyed hearing someone speak with great enthusiasm about any subject, especially a literary one, and because I enjoyed hearing of anyone’s taste becoming more cultivated — it was a kind of intellectual autobiography — and because the story had an added point of interest, the way that science fiction had gone in recent years from being pulp literature for weirdos to being a respectable literary form, whose practitioners were spoken of with respect and often made lots of money. But I was never much tempted by the books my friends recommended, partly because even the weeded down list was pretty extensive — science fiction writers have a strong affection for the 1,200-page trilogy — and partly because my friends admitted that the philosophies of the best writers could be pretty bizarre. It took a strange guy to take up science fiction in the old days.

When my friend at the car, however — a thoughtful, intelligent man who was no longer much enamored of science fiction — recommended just one title, and thought enough of it to step back to the car and mention it, I thought I should look it up. The book he had recommended was The Left Hand of Darkness.

I should state at the outset my major objection to science fiction. Often when my friends told me about it, they would describe some author’s elaborate alternate world, all of whose attributes they had visualized and remembered; they would tell how well worked out it was, how it all fit together; at the end they would add some final detail, and exclaim with delight that the place was “just like earth.” I could never understand, if an author’s object was to create a place just like earth, why he had bothered to create an alternate world at all. The real world was at his doorstep, waiting to be described. It seemed to me that creating an alternate world was a cop-out: nobody could hold you responsible for being true to the real one. (I have since come to think, however, that science fiction writers choose to describe alternate worlds simply because their minds run in that direction. The function of a scientist is to imagine new possibilities. That may be why so many scientists enjoy reading fantasy.)

LeGuin’s writing does not strike me that way. The two novels I have read, the two big award winners, are not all that fantastic. (LeGuin personally does not think of herself as a science fiction writer, simply as a novelist.) They do give names to imaginary planets, and describe technologies beyond anything we presently have, but their worlds have a familiar feel. The Left Hand of Darkness concerns a race of hermaphrodites, people who have monthly periods of sexual heat and assume gender only at that time; The Dispossessed concerns a group of anarchists who have formed a colony on their world’s moon. LeGuin does not go into great detail about the physiology of her hermaphrodites, or about the technology that made the colony possible. These things are simply background to the stories she wants to tell.

Both of these novels answer the precise objection that I have always had about science fiction. They tell stories that could only take place in the world they inhabit; they do not go through an elaborate rigamarole and then tell a story that could just as easily have taken place in Duluth. The way LeGuin has gone about creating worlds to convey her ideas strikes me as positively ingenious.

The Left Hand of Darkness is perhaps the more ingenious; it has the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity that one finds in great art. The book’s basic premise — a society of hermaphrodites — has vast and incredible ramifications. People in this society are sexual only once a month; their day-to-day life includes no sexual component, so sex does not complicate their relationships. Their usual state could be described as prepubescent. (I do not think of prepubescence — as some people do — as extraordinarily innocent, but I do think of it as a creative time. Something seems to hit people around the onset of puberty that makes them dull. Many never recover. But is it possible even to imagine what life might be like without the constant distraction of sex? The energy that would be left over for other things? The thought is dazzling.) When they are in heat, their sex drive is overwhelming and incapacitating, so it is entirely accepted by society. Romantic and even physical attraction don’t seem to matter much — anyone else in heat will do — though some people, for other than sexual reasons, choose to be partners for life. The same person might be male one month, female the next, so he can be both a father and a mother. Since coupling is so casual, however, there is not much distinction in being a father; the only parent of real significance is the one whose body you came from. Children are raised not in families but in commune-type environments, where all the adults are responsible for them. Most significantly, of course, the world has no gender differences. There is no man’s work or woman’s work, no male characteristics or female characteristics. The very concepts make no sense. Everyone is the same.

The Left Hand of Darkness does not answer questions so much as it raises them; they reverberate through the reader’s consciousness as he reads and long after he finishes. Other writers have shown us ways in which we are sexist, or might be less so; it took a great leap of imagination to create a society in which the word doesn’t even exist. It is to LeGuin’s credit that she has not made this world into a utopia. It is not entirely pacifist, for instance — some casual violence takes place — though no wars are fought there (LeGuin thus hazards the opinion that it is something about gender difference that compels people to form armies and fight wars). It is not a perfect world, but a different world, with its own advantages and its own problems.

But is it possible even to imagine what life might be like without the constant distraction of sex? The energy that would be left over for other things? The thought is dazzling.

The Dispossessed would be more accurately called a political novel than a science fiction novel, if we have to put labels on fiction at all. It is not a political novel in the usual sense, in which the machinations of some venal system are presented in all their repulsiveness, but in a more ideal sense. An alternate political system has been allowed to live itself out to its conclusions. As Nora Gallagher pointed out in a recent article on LeGuin (Mother Jones, January, 1984), the term anarchism has been much misunderstood. It starts with the idea that the best government is the least government. The real problem in our political systems is not one set of principles or another, but the fact that there is any central organization at all. People would get along best if they could settle into small communities they form themselves. Anarchism does not necessarily hold to the Rousseauistic premise that people are basically good and will probably behave if governments will leave them alone; it is just as likely to argue that people are evil and will do something terrible if you arm them with power. The mistake is to give anyone power. It is far better to leave things messy and half-assed than to get too centrally organized.

The Dispossessed does not examine a group of rebels who have taken up this philosophy and recently struck out on their own; it takes up such a society 150 years after it was founded, when its kinks have been worked out and its characteristic problems developed. There is virtually no economy in our sense; people work at producing goods and others may have what they need. There is no false separation between the place of production and the place of commerce, or between them and the place of residence; people live, work, and trade in the same general location. There are dormitory-like buildings where people can live singly, or in pairs, or they can build their own places; there are dorms for children, too. Again the nuclear family is not a strong unit, especially because there is no sense of possession in the society; family members are referred to as “the” partner and “the” parent and “the” child, with no possession implied. People work at the jobs they want to do, or take short turns at the jobs nobody wants; there is a sense of common purpose that works like a conscience and compels people to do the undesirable thing, though there are outsiders in the society who do next to nothing and get along as well as anybody. Again, sex is entirely free, and promiscuity is common, though there are people who choose to be partners for life. Such partnerships seem to mean more in a society where they are not the common custom.

Once again, LeGuin has not created a utopia. Despite their advanced technology, the moon where the anarchists have settled is a barren place, and mere survival is touch and go. More problematic is the fact that in the 150 years since their colony was founded, even the principles of anarchism have managed to become institutionalized, and to create a climate of opinion that is stifling to free thought. The central drama of the novel takes place when a physicist from the colony must flee his world for his ideas to have any use, then see the use to which his ideas are put in another world.

There is much to admire in these novels beyond the brilliance of their central conceptions. Their style is vivid but simple, utterly unpretentious, with the kind of transparency that reveals ideas in all their clarity. I can’t remember when I have done reading that is so satisfactory on an emotional level — telling a story I want to hear — and also on an intellectual level, provoking hours of thought beyond what the books even dealt with. A certain kind of reader might object that these books do not deal with situations in the real world that we can relate to and understand, but to my mind it is their very unreality that makes them valuable. The Left Hand of Darkness raises questions of gender that no realistic feminist novel could ever approach, and The Dispossessed is important not because it deals with politics as they are, but because it charts places we conceivably might go. The first step in changing the politics of the world we live in might be to visualize alternatives.

Since being introduced to her novels, I have also done some reading about LeGuin, most notably in Nora Gallagher’s superb Mother Jones article. Not surprisingly, she sounds like a wonderful person, who was raised by university professor parents and married a professor husband but has remained aloof from academia herself; who has written all her life but had trouble publishing her idiosyncratic vision of things until she submitted it as science fiction; who labored for a time in obscurity — and therefore in relative quiet — as a genre writer out of the artistic mainstream; who is devoted to her husband and family (LeGuin says that the most frequent subject in her writing is marriage, but the subject receives particularly brilliant treatment in The Dispossessed, which is dedicated to “the partner”); who considers herself a “petty-bourgeois anarchist” and an “inconsistent Taoist” and who has worked in politics for the cause of peace. Her essays, which she has collected in The Language of the Night, reveal her to be a voracious and intelligent reader, a sharp defender of the kind of imaginative literature she writes. She has the kind of clearheaded intelligence that sweeps away years of literary dogma in the blink of an eye. She is an intellectual but not an academic, and all the more intelligent for not being one.

I try never to use the word great about a living author. I hardly use it about dead ones. I will not use it now, especially because I do not really know LeGuin’s work: I have read only two novels out of a rather large opus. It does strike me, however, that the great authors of world literature often worked in obscurity when they were alive; their books seemed peripheral to the central concerns of the day perhaps because they were ahead of their time. LeGuin’s books do not seem of a kind that will date; we are not likely soon to solve the problems of gender, or of living together politically. One feels reasonably certain that at any particular moment there is probably a great writer alive in the world, and wonders who it might be. I can’t help wondering if it might be a woman (another reason for her to go unnoticed) who — though she keeps up with the advances of science — is somewhat apart from her age, who in the comfortable guise of a professor’s wife can have political and philosophical notions that are positively radical, who has a wonderful sense of story, a strong style, sharp intelligence, deep feeling, and who has been able to develop her ideas without interference because she writes in a genre that is not taken entirely seriously.