Authors: Ursula K. Le Guin
The story tells of a poor fisherman, Urashima, who went out daily in his boat alone on the quiet sea that lay between his
home island and the mainland. He was a beautiful young man with long, black hair, and the daughter of the king of the sea
saw him as he leaned over the side of the boat and she gazed up to see the floating shadow cross the wide circle of the sky.
Rising from the waves, she begged him to come to her palace under the sea with him. At first he refused, saying, “My children
wait for me at home.” But how could he resist the sea king’s daughter? “One night,” he said. She drew him down with her under
the water, and they spent a night of love in her green palace, served by strange undersea beings. Urashima came to love her
dearly, and maybe he stayed more than one night only. But at last he said, “My dear, I must go. My children wait for me at
“If you go, you go forever,” she said.
“I will come back,” he promised.
CITY OF ILLUSIONS
FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS
A FISHERMAN OF
THE INLAND SEA
“Introduction,” copyright © 1994 by Ursula K. Le Guin.
“The First Contact with Gorgonids,” copyright © 1991 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
“Newton’s Sleep,” copyright © 1991 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
Full Spectrum 3.
“The Ascent of the North Face,” copyright © 1983 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
“The Rock That Changed Things,” copyright © 1992 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
“The Kerastion,” copyright © 1990 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
Westercon 1990 Program Book.
“The Shobies’ Story,” copyright © 1990 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
“Dancing to Ganam,” copyright © 1993 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
“Another Story” or “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” copyright © 1994 by Ursula K. Le Guin; first appeared in
ON NOT READING SCIENCE FICTION
People who don’t read it, and even some of those who write it, like to assume or pretend that the ideas used in science fiction
all rise from intimate familiarity with celestial mechanics and quantum theory, and are comprehensible only to readers who
work for NASA and know how to program their VCR. This fantasy, while making the writers feel superior, gives the non-readers
an excuse. I just don’t understand it, they whimper, taking refuge in the deep, comfortable, anaerobic caves of technophobia.
It is of no use to tell them that very few science fiction writers understand “it” either. We, too, generally find we have
twenty minutes of
I Love Lucy
and half a wrestling match on our videocassettes when we meant to record
Most of the scientific ideas in science fiction are totally accessible and indeed familiar to anybody who got through sixth
grade, and in any case you aren’t going to be tested on them at the end of the book. The stuff isn’t disguised engineering
lectures, after all. It isn’t that invention of a mathematical Satan, “story problems.” It’s stories. It’s
fiction that plays with certain subjects for their inherent interest, beauty, relevance to the human condition. Even in its
ungainly and inaccurate name, the “science” modifies, is in the service of, the “fiction.”
For example, the main “idea” in my book
The Left Hand of Darkness
isn’t scientific and has nothing to do with technology. It’s a bit of physiological imagination—a body change. For the people
of the invented world Gethen, individual gender doesn’t exist. They’re sexually neuter most of the time, coming into heat
once a month, sometimes as a male, sometimes as a female. A Getheian can both sire and bear children. Now, whether this invention
strikes one as peculiar, or perverse, or fascinating, it certainly doesn’t require a great scientific intellect to grasp it,
or to follow its implications as they’re played out in the novel.
Another element in the same book is the climate of the planet, which is deep in an ice age. A simple idea: It’s cold; it’s
very cold; it’s always cold. Ramifications, complexities, and resonance come with the detail of imagining.
The Left Hand of Darkness
differs from a realistic novel only in asking the reader to accept,
certain limited and specific changes in narrative reality. Instead of being on Earth during an interglacial period among
two-sexed people, (as in, say,
Pride and Prejudice,
or any realistic novel you like), we’re on Gethen during a period of glaciation among androgynes. It’s useful to remember
that both worlds are imaginary.
Science-fictional changes of parameter, though they may be both playful and decorative, are essential to the book’s nature
and structure; whether they are pursued and explored chiefly for their own interest, or serve predominantly as metaphor or
symbol, they’re worked out and embodied novelistically in terms of the society and the characters’ psychology, in description,
action, emotion, implication, and imagery. The description in science fiction is likely to be somewhat “thicker,” to use Clifford
Geertz’s term, than in realistic fiction,
which calls on an assumed common experience. But the difficulty of understanding it is no greater than the difficulty of following
any complex fiction. The world of Gethen is less familiar, but actually infinitely simpler, than the English social world
of two hundred years ago which Jane Austen explored and embodied so vividly. Both worlds take some getting to know, since
neither is one we can experience except in words, by reading about them. All fiction offers us a world we can’t otherwise
reach, whether because it’s in the past, or in far or imaginary places, or describes experiences we haven’t had, or leads
us into minds different from our own. To some people this change of worlds, this unfamiliarity, is an insurmountable barrier;
to others, an adventure and a pleasure.
People who don’t read science fiction, but who have at least given it a fair shot, often say they’ve found it inhuman, elitist,
and escapist. Since its characters, they say, are both conventionalized and extraordinary, all geniuses, space heroes, superhackers,
androgynous aliens, it evades what ordinary people really have to deal with in life, and so fails an essential function of
fiction. However remote Jane Austen’s England is, the people in it are immediately relevant and revelatory—reading about them
we learn about ourselves. Has science fiction anything to offer but escape from ourselves?
The cardboard-character syndrome was largely true of early science fiction, but for decades writers have been using the form
to explore character and human relationships. I’m one of them. An imagined setting may be the most appropriate in which to
work out certain traits and destinies. But it’s also true that a great deal of contemporary fiction isn’t a fiction of character.
This end of the century isn’t an age of individuality as the Elizabethan and the Victorian ages were. Our stories, realistic
or otherwise, with their unreliable narrators, dissolving points of view, multiple perceptions and perspectives, often don’t
have depth of character as their central value. Science fiction, with its tremendous
freedom of metaphor, has sent many writers far ahead in this exploration beyond the confines of individuality—Sherpas on the
slopes of the postmodern.
As for elitism, the problem may be scientism: technological edge mistaken for moral superiority. The imperialism of high technocracy
equals the old racist imperialism in its arrogance; to the technophile, people who aren’t in the know/in the net, who don’t
have the right artifacts, don’t count. They’re proles, masses, faceless nonentities. Whether it’s fiction or history, the
story isn’t about them. The story’s about the kids with the really neat, really expensive toys. So “people” comes to be operationally
defined as those who have access to an extremely elaborate fast-growth industrial technology. And “technology” itself is restricted
to that type. I have heard a man say perfectly seriously that the Native Americans before the Conquest had no technology.
As we know, kiln-fired pottery is a naturally occurring substance, baskets ripen in the summer, and Machu Picchu just grew
Limiting humanity to the producer-consumers of a complex industrial growth technology is a really weird idea, on a par with
defining humanity as Greeks, or Chinese, or the upper-middle-class British. It leaves out a little too much.
All fiction, however, has to leave out most people. A fiction interested in complex technology may legitimately leave out
the (shall we say) differently technologized, as a fiction about suburban adulteries may ignore the city poor, and a fiction
centered on the male psyche may omit women. Such omission may, however, be read as a statement that advantage is superiority,
or that the white middle class is the whole society, or that only men are worth writing about. Moral and political statements
by omission are legitimated by the consciousness of making them, insofar as the writer’s culture permits that consciousness.
It comes down to a matter of taking responsibility. A denial of authorial responsibility, a willed unconsciousness, is elitist,
and it does impoverish
much of our fiction in every genre, including realism.
I don’t accept the judgment that in using images and metaphors of other worlds, space travel, the future, imagined technologies,
societies, or beings, science fiction escapes from having human relevance to our lives. Those images and metaphors used by
a serious writer are images and metaphors of our lives, legitimately novelistic, symbolic ways of saying what cannot otherwise
be said about us, our being and choices, here and now. What science fiction does is enlarge the here and now.
What do you find interesting? To some people only other people are interesting. Some people really don’t care about trees
or fish or stars or how engines work or why the sky is blue; they’re exclusively human-centered, often with the encouragement
of their religion; and they aren’t going to like either science or science fiction. Like all the sciences except anthropology,
psychology, and medicine, science fiction is not exclusively human-centered. It includes other beings, other aspects of being.
It may be about relationships between people—the great subject of realist fiction—but it may be about the relationship between
a person and something else, another kind of being, an idea, a machine, an experience, a society.