Ursula K. Le Guin, NO TIME TO SPARE: Thinking About What Matters (2017)

This book is a collection of the best blog posts Le Guin did on her site at http://www.ursulakleguin.com/, from 2010 until her death in early 2018. It was published in December 2017, and won the Hugo Award in August 2018 as Best Related Work (i.e., a nonfiction book about science fiction or fantasy) of 2017. One has to acknowledge that the award was something of a sympathy vote, for while it’s a charming book with many wise thoughts, very little of it is about science fiction or fantasy specifically. The title echoes her reflection on her age, and about a questionnaire that asked what she did in her ‘spare time’. As a full-time writer, she’s constantly busy with “daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking… None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it… I’m going to be eight-one next week. I have no time to spare.”

Still, Le Guin is one of science fiction’s greatest writers, and she applied her talent not just to science fiction and fantasy, and it’s well worth spending time sampling her wisdom in this book.

The introduction is by Karen Joy Fowler – note p xiv – xv, “In another essay, in another book, Le Guin has said that so-called realism centers the human. Only the literature of the fantastic deals with the nonhuman as of equal interest and important. In this and so many other ways, fantasy is the more subversive, the more comprehensive, the more intriguing literature.” [[ I’ll have to track down that essay. I agree with this to a point – but think it is science fiction that deals with the nonhuman as of equal interest, and fantasy that more often indulges in human interests and priorities in an indulgent way. ]]

  • She notes that she was inspired to start a blog by reading the blogs of Jose Saramago.
  • P3, dealing with a Harvard survey asking what she does in her ‘spare time’. Writing is what she does; she doesn’t have spare time. She skips some questions with inadequate choices for answers.
  • P8, about old age, rejecting that saying about ‘you’re only as old as you feel’, and being frank about the challenges of getting older
  • P12, more about getting old, and respect, and the young
  • P18, about he she doesn’t drive and neither she nor husband can walk down 10 steep blocks to the market any more; they have to plan weekly shopping
  • P23, Choosing a Cat, at the Humane Society in Portland, picking one out, taking him home, naming him Pard
  • P29, Chosen by a Cat, after four months, how Pard eats, tears around the house, getting into things, eating beetles
  • P35, about cursing in fiction, so unimaginative with only two words these days
  • P39, readers’ questions, she likes only specific ones, like about sparrowhawks; what stories mean is up to the reader
  • P44, kids’ letters, mostly about Catwings, and with charming misspellings
  • P48, about how she never got the proverb about having one’s cake and eating it too; perhaps a confusion over the meaning of ‘have’ which can mean eat. Words matter.
  • P53, about Iliad and Odyssey, the ur-stories about story and the journey
  • P59, about the Sartre Prize for nonacceptance of an award; how she’d won the Nebula for “The Diary of the Rose” but refused it over the SFWA/Lem kerfuffle. [[ This is news: it’s long been known that she withdrew that story from the final ballot, but not that she did so despite the fact that it had actually won; by withdrawing it, she let Asimov win for “The Bicentennial Man” ]]
  • P63, About the great American novel, and how such a notion is parochial and unnecessary; but how her own favorite is The Grapes of Wrath, how the ending made such an impact on her when she read it young
  • P69, what a great novel by a woman? Again, doesn’t take idea seriously.
  • P74, The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum, discusses two books, The Help, a page-turner but troublesome in many ways, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks, much better. Yet both compulsively readable.
  • “It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is” p80: about imaginative literature, and how it’s different than childish imaginings; it’s not ‘anything goes’ and it’s not ‘it ought to be this way’; it’s ‘it doesn’t have to be the way it is.’ P83t:
    • “As for the charge of escapism, what does *escape* mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of?”
  • And this on the relation of fantasy and science, p84.3:
    • “There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty. This is why it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy. Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions. “
    • (Well—it’s easy to see the distinction; science is about what’s real, in a practical way; fantasy is almost by definition about what isn’t real. But that’s not her issue here.)
    • But the passage goes on: “Of course the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise. But are the two operations opposed, or related? We can’t question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our belief, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality. All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was, ‘It doesn’t have to be the way we thought it was.’ “
    • (This is more to the point. The hostility to fantasy, therefore, might come from those, the religious, who are certain in their opinions about the world and resent having them challenged; thus the religious reaction against the Harry Potter books, which supposedly encouraged belief in magic and witchcraft.)
  • P85, Utopiyin, Utopiyang. About dystopias, and the relationship between male and female, yang and yin. Ends with thoughts about the idea of growth as the continuing good, p87b:
    • “My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.”
  • More about Pard: how the cat likes to make some kinds of trouble; how it disappears at times.
  • P101, about the importance of solidarity, and how male group solidarity shapes the world, perhaps, and how it’s much different than the kind of ‘sisterhood’ that characterized early feminism.
  • P107, how the sharp uniforms of earlier eras have given way to the baggy camos of the modern one.
  • P111, written in 2011 (during the last recession): More about the notion that growth is a positive economic goal. It’s plausible, as in a person’s growth; but the person stops growing at some point.
    • 3: “In taking uncontrolled, unlimited, unceasing growth as the only recipe for economic health, we’ve dismissed the ideas of optimum size and keeping the organism in balance.”
    • 6: “Capitalist growth, probably for at least a century and certainly from the turn of the millennium on, has been growth in the wrong sense. Not only endless but uncontrolled—random. Growth as in tumor. Growth as in cancer.”
    • (Long my thought. We may have avoided the pitfalls of the ‘population bomb’ forecast in the 1960s, but, mathematically, the race can’t continue to grow *forever*, or we’ll overload the planet.)
    • 114e: “So what is our new metaphor to be? It might be the difference between life and death to find the right one.”
  • P115, how politicians lie, but how “something has changed,” how Americans sacrificed during World War II and no one can imagine them doing it today; how life was never ‘simple’ for people in earlier times; how we seem to have given up on the long-term view.
  • P120, about the cult of the ‘inner child’ who possesses some essential innocence lost in adulthood; and about a quote attributed to Le Guin that she didn’t remember. Quotes from Wordsworth, about how life is a “sleep and a forgetting” between two poles of eternal being that a soul enters life from.
  • P128, “Modest Proposal” (i.e. a mock serious piece, after Swift) about how even eating vegetables is taking their lives.
  • P130, asking why is ‘belief’ in itself desirable? And why asking about ‘belief’ in evolution, say, is the wrong question. One doesn’t ‘believe’ evolution; one accepts it. P133t:
    • “The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection—not to belief or disbelief.”
  • P136: About anger, including private anger, including anger at writers she doesn’t respect be so respected by others: Hemingway, Joyce, Roth; because if they are the greatest, “there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer…”
    • (Of course the solution here is that writers are valued for different reasons, and by different people; there is no singular canon that everyone agrees upon. And surely Le Guin know this; she’s just venting.)
  • More about Pard: bringing mice into the house. The cat knows how to capture, but doesn’t have the instinct to kill.
  • P159: Appreciations of works by Philip Glass, the short opera Galileo Galilei, and John Luther Adams, Become Ocean. (Of the Glass, there are brief excerpts on YouTube.)
  • P166, about her assistant Delores, who handled her mail, until she died; how other writers deal with such assistants.
  • P173, about breakfasts in Vienna, with or without eggs, and what it meant when she declined the egg; and about eating soft-boiled eggs, and egg cups.
  • P179, about a ‘cathedral’ in Portland that is actually a huge warehouse food bank.
  • P184: about their Christmas tree. How cutting down the live tree is a kind of “ritual sacrifice”…
  • P188, about how children learn new ideas, about how a small lie about “horsies” being upstairs can be taken literally; about Santa Claus, about pretend vs real, about how ‘loss of belief’ involves how children believe in falsehoods, and how “Belief has no value in itself that I can see.”
  • P197, Staying at a ranch in Napa and capturing a rattlesnake.
  • P201, About staying in Bend, Oregon, a town with new developments and curved streets that are easily confusing; and about a lynx that had been kept as a pet, declawed, and then abandoned, now at the High Desert Museum.
  • P210, finally, “Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert” – poetic descriptions of wildlife, sunrises, landscapes, over several days.


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