The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Joy is not something we feel in a vacuum; joy relates us to things, anchors us, unmoors us and sends us off on long voyages. Joy connects and energizes, ensorcels and inspires. It is the result of a powerful instance of interaction; a moment of encounter kindles a feeling of happiness, wonderment, and rejoicing. I can think of many joys I’ve encountered in reading fantastic literature: authors who have invigorated me; ideas that have provoked me; and works that have shattered me. But for persistent joy, for great moments of ecstasy and small moments of guidance, and for a deep feeling of satisfaction, Ursula K. Le Guin remains a primary source. And what makes that joy so special, what often makes the joy I find in fantastika so dynamic, is that it gives me hope.
I first encountered Le Guin in high school (1983 or thereabouts) via my favorite teacher. Her writing was tough going for me at first, but the more I read, the more I felt something . . . odd. Sword-and-sorcery and space opera gave me pleasure and diversion, but there was so much more in Le Guin’s writing. “[S]he was the first author who profoundly shook me up.” This may not sounds like a joyous thing, but when I finished “The Word for World is Forest,” I felt exhilarated, awakened, and strengthened. This writing was quite different than what I had read before, both in the language and its intentions.
I proceeded to read as much of her work as I could find. Some of it was difficult to comprehend, and some of it perplexed me, but I persisted because of the feelings it generated in me. It made me think, but it also angered me, enraptured me, saddened me, and emboldened me. The Dispossessed made me question the political beliefs my parents had fed me; The Left Hand of Darkness forced me to think about what made me a person. The Hainish novels thrust questions of culture and domination before my eyes,
And I found that, hard going as some of it was, I loved it all. I rejoiced in what I found, in what the words did for me. I smiled when I had to go back over a passage or pause and consider the implications of a sentence. I felt giddily snared by the language. I began to really think weirdly
, and I felt a new sort of joy in it.
I had no idea that literature could do this, both in terms of imagination and content; I had read social commentary in novels before (I read most of Dickens’ works in the third grade) but I had not encountered this sort of playing with concepts and assumptions, these upendings and reversals. And they made me happy. I realized that what I had been enjoying before — mostly Heinlein, Burroughs, and Tolkien — were lacking the intellectual adventurousness, boundary-pushing, and the insatiable love for language itself that Le Guin’s work possessed.
And it changed me. I suddenly became a literary explorer, looking for the strange, the poetic, and the surreal in a quest to be startled by words, to be interrogated by stories. I wasn’t looking for escape, but for liberation. I wanted to understand the world and myself better, but I wanted different angles of approach, different lenses to look through. Le Guin’s fiction was an atlas of the imagination, creating impossible maps that combined improbabilities and truths that cast light on each other. I learned about illusions and delusions and how we create them. And I was transfixed with joy, laughing at my own shortcomings and myopia while wondering how I could change my world. The joy that I gained from these encounters gave me something I had not really had before: hope.
Because Le Guin taught me, continues to teach me, that foolishness and suffering are not parts of life to be endured; they are just parts of life. Trying to avoid them, escape from them, deny them is an exercise in futility, but also deprives joy of its sweetness. “If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled.” Joy’s contrast with the exigencies of life are part of what makes it so dizzying and beautiful to feel. Joy is fulfilling; it shifts something inside you, creates an opportunity for something good to happen. Maybe you feel reinforced, maybe some thought comes to fruition, maybe a feeling solidifies and takes on new meaning and depth. Le Guin taught me a meaning of joy that helps me fully engage its power and delight. She taught me that hope is not hollow, and that it is not wistful, but it can be actively refreshing and motivating.
This joy has continued to grow and flower. Her book, The Language of the Night, continues to remind me that the fantastic is such an important source of joy. “For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true.” The fantastic’s potential for joy and insight is limitless, which is why I keep coming back to it. Realism is by intention limiting, narrowing. There can be joy in it, but you find truth in a different way. The joy of fantastic fiction is that it can be revelatory and imperishable, and Le Guin’s writing constantly reminds me of that. I just finished reading her collection The Unreal and the Real: What on Earth?, and even in its most unfantastic moments, this truism arises. While some of the stories are “realist,” they remind us that life is magical. The everyday is a world conjured and elaborated by our imaginings, our desires and presumptions. Le Guin taught me this too, and it fills me with joy. The world is not a large, scary place, but a vast terrain of potentials.
To question reality with the fantastic creates an opportunity for joy. It may not always be complex or completely believable (like the gender-switching of The Left Hand of Darkness) but it encourages you to take chances with your thinking. Imagine a world where “the way things are” is different. Seek out the unfamiliar; engage what makes you uncertain or uncomfortable. Feel the difficulties of understanding, open yourself to them. Be thrilled when you find those chances, and be jubilant when they touch something in you. And maybe you will suddenly put some pieces together and feel the joy of something new, unexpected, and eye-opening flourishing within you. That joy-as-hope is what Le Guin gave me, and I will always be grateful for it.
John E. O. Stevens is a writer and bookseller living in Ithaca, NY. He is a columnist for SF Signal, is one-third of the Three Hoarsemen podcast, and is working on a novel and a book on the ontological resonances of reading fantastika.