This event took place at the Friends Meeting House in Manchester.
We were delighted to welcome back lecturer and novelist Una McCormack who spoke at our previous event on 6th October 2018: “Dreams and Nightmares: Feminist Utopias and Dystopias,” on the pre-war feminist and pacifist writer Katharine Cade, better known as Murray Constantine. Her best known work is Swastika Night (1937), a dystopian vision of the future 700 years hence in which Hitler is worshipped as a god.
Una has written many science fiction novels including both Star Trek and Doctor Who as well as writing for Big Finish series of Doctor Who audio adventures. Her most recent novels are The Undefeated and Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope.
Her academic work includes a monograph on the Doctor Who story ‘The Curse of Fenric’ and co-editing, with Regina Yung Lee, a forthcoming volume of essays on Lois McMaster Bujold: Biology and Manners: the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold. She has also written a critical afterword for the recent reprint of Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting, from Handheld Press. (You can find out more about Una’s work and writing here.)
This time Una discussed the work of science fiction writers Ursula Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre. Her talk was entitled . “Ygor and Buntho: the friendship and legacies of Vonda McIntyre and Ursula Ke Guin.”
Una explained that Le Guin and McIntyre were very close friends throughout their lives. They met in the late 1960s, when Le Guin was in her early thirties, and McIntyre in her very early twenties. Both based in the Pacific Northwest, they established a friendship of mutual support (and fun) that lasted almost 50 years, adopting the shadowy personas of Ygor and Buntho (hence the title of her talk), which they used for teaching workshops, writing collaborations and so on.
“So this talk today is my small contribution to helping ensure that the writing of both these women – these friends – is remembered. We are unlikely to forget the works of Ursula Le Guin, but the danger is that one woman writing science fiction comes to stand for all women writing science fiction, and authors like McIntyre fade away. Part of the thrill of reading both these women is discovering not only their books, but also the community and debates in which they were involved – a systematic retooling of science fiction during the 1970s to the purposes of feminism and the women’s movement. Le Guin and McIntyre were, with other writers, part of a radical revisioning of science fiction that continues to have relevance today.”
Una said that until the 1970s science fiction was very much dominated by men: women writers often faced the outright sexism as they tried to establish themselves within the genre of their choice. She then went on to discuss four novels.
Ursula Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)
“The Left Hand of Darkness is Le Guin’s first attempt to consider gender seriously in her work. I often comment that Le Guin, who was a decade older than most women involved in the second wave, seems to learn feminism as a second language: her earlier work, including The Left Hand of Darkness, sees the masculine as the universal. It’s not until the 80s, particularly in her revisioning of her Earthsea novels, that Le Guin’s work fully changes its subject, becomes fully informed by feminism. In The Left Hand of Darkness, we see the start of that shift.”
“The novel is set on the permanently wintry planet Gethen, where an envoy from Earth, Genly Ai, has been sent on behalf of the Ekumen, a loose confederation of worlds who are seeking to re-establish contact with lost ‘human’ colonies and encourage them to join up. On Gethen, the population is ambisexual, neither male nor female, except during a period of sexual receptiveness known as ‘kemmer’, when Gethenians take on male or female sexual characteristics: they can exhibit the characteristics of either. This ambisexuality is a real barrier to Genly Ai’s understanding of this world; he utterly misreads his peril, and he’s forced to flee across the ice in the company of Lord Estraven, who exiles himself from his homeland in order to save Ai and promote Gethen’s entry into the Ekumen.”
“You’ll note I used ‘himself’ here: this is a real problem in the novel, which uses masculine signifiers as default. Joanna Russ criticized this at the time, and Le Guin herself later agreed she would do this differently. Questions about gender are posed throughout the novel, but the book defaults to masculine as universal. Formally, however, this is a work of exquisite craft and beauty – the detail and minutiae of life on Gethen, and the effects of the ambisexual nature of the population upon the culture, are meticulously drawn; the account of Ai and Estraven’scrossing of the ice rivals anything written by a polar explorer. In this first major novel, Le Guinexplores the limits of what it might mean to be human, and continues her process of changing the subject of her own work.”
The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin (1974)
“Le Guin’s second major novel of this period, The Dispossessed, is one of the literature’s most finely worked pieces of utopian fiction (until Le Guin’s1985 compendium novel, Always Coming Home). She herself called The Dispossessed an ‘ambiguous utopia’, and we certainly see a society in the process of remaking itself, having drifted from the ideals upon which it was founded. The settings are the two worlds – Urras and Anarres: Urras has a variety of nation-states (the two powers are broadly speaking, capitalist and state-communist); Anarres, however, was settled centuries earlier by anarcho-syndicalist revolutionaries who leave Urras to set up their brave new world. Anarres is an anarchist utopia.”
“The protagonist, Shevek (again, male), is a brilliant Anarresti physicist on the verge of a breakthrough in temporal physics which will allow instantaneous communication between worlds to become a reality. In opening dialogue with scientists back on Urras, however, he’s incurred the wrath of his community, and the book opens with him fleeing to Urras. There, he initially enjoyed the luxurious lifestyle offered by capitalism (a sharp contrast to the hardships of his barren homeworld), but quickly starts to recognise the exploitation, inequalities, and brutal suppression of labour movements that underpin this society. Recognising he’s in danger of becoming a pawn in a geopolitical power game between the two blocs, Shevek gives his breakthrough theory to an envoy from the Ekumen to transmit freely, and he returns to Anarresrecommitted to make his own society – which now sees is in danger of stagnation – work once again.”
“This only skims the surface of this rich and deeply rewarding novel. Le Guin’s anarchist revolution is documented down to the linguistic level.If some aspects of the book now seem dated, particularly Shevek’s rather traditional nuclear family, this, agains hould be seen as part of the process of Le Guin’s steady move towards implementing feminist ideas in her writing. In its thorough depiction of how an anarchist society might work, The Dispossessed is a major imaginative speculative endeavour. In it, we see Le Guin start to come to the height of her powers.”
The Exile Waiting by Vonda McIntyre (1975)
Vonda N McIntyre
“When we turn to Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, The Exile Waiting, we do see an immediate difference. The protagonist is Mischa, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives by her wits in a dystopian underground city. What is most interesting about this novel is how bleak the world is that McIntyre creates – a dystopia built on exploitative power dynamics – but in which gender is an irrelevance. Centre, the bunker city in which Mischa lives, is run by Mafia-like families who have reduced the bulk of the population to beggary and slavery, but in making this society non-sexist, McIntyre examines the power structures at work while simultaneously showing there’s nothing natural about them. Power is not inherent, the book argues; it does not arise from status or gender, and, as a result, it is subject to change.”
“The world of Centre is vividly drawn. Nuclear bunkers form the main part, but these have been dug and expanded to make use of natural cave systems all around, where outcasts from Centre live. These have been mostly banished because of disfigurements or mutations. The book is completely radical – and forward-thinking – in its examination of disability, and prefigures many of the central concerns of contemporary disability activism in its emphasis on the social construction of disability.”
“The novel perhaps suffers from being too pared back to fully explore all the subjects it raises, but its protagonist and themes are before-their-time. Centre itself, the vast underground prison from which Mischa must escape, making new allies on the way, in particular is a fully imagined and presented setting.”
Dreamsnake by Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
“Dreamsnake, McIntyre’s second and most acclaimed novel, is set in the same world, but this time upon the surface of the far-future, post-apocalyptic Earth. The protagonist is a young woman, Snake, an itinerant healer who travels with three snakes who assist in her cures. Two of these snakes, a cobra and a rattlesnake, provide venoms which are the basis of potions. The third snake is a mysterious and very rare ‘dreamsnake’, whose bite causes hallucinations which help in the healing process. At the start of the book, Snake visits a small community of desert people, and saves the life of a young boy; however, the tribe, frightened by the dreamsnake, kill it. This is a source of deep shame and stigma for Snake (dreamsnakes are practically irreplaceable) and her hopeless quest to find another forms the central narrative of the book.”
“In a very simple way, putting a woman with full agency at the heart of her story, McIntyre changes the subject of science fiction. The hero’s journey becomes the heroine’s journey: Snake is not defined by the men around her, but by her attempts to make good her mistake, and her explorations of her world. (There is a romantic interest, but he spends the book chasing after her, providing emotional support.) The resolution, which I shall try not spoil other than in general terms, depends on Snake throwing away entrenched ideas of the world working on binary oppositions, particularly when it comes to gender. Notions of masculine and feminine, of male and female, will not ultimately help Snake in her quest.”
Una finished with the hope that she had given some insight into these two remarkable writers.
Feminist, radical, and utopian ideas permeate all their works. Even as aspects of those fournovels might seem dated, other aspects seem as fresh and as radical as they did at publication. Behind both writers lies a belief in the power of speculative, non-realist fiction to provide the tools to imagine and create new and better worlds. Let me leave you, then, with these words from Le Guin, in the speech she gave when accepting that medal for distinguished contribution to American literature:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”
In the second half of the event we opened up the discussion to the audience to talk about their own visions of the future. The topics raise included: the position of young people in society today; the impact of poverty and austerity; climate change; the positive and negative effects of social media; the need for more women writers on GCE English Literature courses; and why a moneyless society might be desirable.
Our thanks to our sponsors of this event:
Unite North West Regional Committee
Unite Fylde Coast branch
Unite Jaguar Halewood branch NW 0373
Unite Retired Members branch NW 10299
Unite Merseyside Area Civil Engineering branch NW 127404
Unite Bolton branch NW/0121
Unite Burnley branch NW /0176
Unite GEMS Sector branch NW/0904
Unite Preston branch NW 0754
Unite Preston and South Ribble branch
Unite Bamber Bridge
Unite Staff branch
Unite Manchester Central branch 0604
Unite Greater Manchester Social Action branch
Unite Fujitsu branch
Unison Environment branch
Unison Knowsley branch
Unison Manchester University Heath care branch
GMB Wigan branch 187