Future Tense

For Ursula K. Le Guin, the Future Was Always About Today

The acclaimed writer taught us how to think about tomorrow by contemplating the wonders of the present.

Photo illustration: Ursula K. Le Guin surrounded by flowers in her garden.
Science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin poses for a portrait in her house on July 5, 2001 in Portland, Oregon. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images.

It is almost always a mistake to conflate science fiction with prophecy, though we too often try. “Their job is not to predict the future,” Lawrence M. Krauss rightly observes of science-fiction writers, “it’s to imagine it based on current trends.” Nevertheless, we still tend to fixate on the things they got right, often with fingers crossed, dreaming that their thoughts might help us make the world righter still.

To the best of my knowledge, Ursula K. Le Guin, who died this week at 88, never invited such oracular comparisons. Like many of her literary peers, she was invested instead in interrogating our own protean era, even, or especially, when she sketched out other times yet to come.

And yet, in her 2017 No Time to Spare, a collection of essays originally composed for her blog over the preceding decade, Le Guin makes one solitary prediction, affirmative as it now is sorrowfully accurate. That piece, originally published in 2011, finds her meditating on the pleasures of a soft-boiled egg—“the difficulty of eating it, the attention it requires, the ceremony.” Only in her final paragraph does she turn to truly practical matters, discussing the Oregon Legislature’s then-recent decision to ban poultry batteries. Noting that the rule would not go into effect until 2024, she concludes, “I will not live to see the birds go free.”

She did not, though she might have. Still, Le Guin who would have turned 95 in 2024, lived long enough to understand that history—personal history, especially—can be a cage of another kind. She writes at length in No Time to Spare about her own descent into physical decrepitude, rejecting comforting clichés with the frank admonition, “[T]he longer a life is, the more of it will be old age.” Perhaps this is what it means to confront the future honestly: In retrospect, the past is our only time machine, and it transports us to the place in which we find ourselves today.

Much the same was true in Le Guin’s fiction. “For Le Guin, ‘elsewhere’ has always been a lens magnifying the vexations of our own time and place, including militarism, sexism, governance, and ecology,” Zoë Carpenter notes in a 2016 profile. In Le Guin’s work, the most vital future—sometimes the most fatal too—was always the one we had made, not a then or a later, but a thrumming and frightening now. “Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations,” she wrote in an essay originally published in 2010. “I have hopes and fears. Mostly the fears predominate these days.” There, she was discussing a survey she had received from Harvard in advance of her 60th college reunion that asked her to reflect on whether her grandchildren had lived up to her “expectations.” At this question, she demurred, arguing instead that her vision of the future was “dark,” and not just because the fate of future generations is likely grim. It was also dark in that it was occluded, covered by the blanket of an overwhelming present.

We tend to frame futurity, the critic and philosopher Lee Edelman has argued, as a fantasy of repetition, one in which tomorrow must and should be the same as yesterday. Children, in this model become conservative vessels, tools not for making the world, but for reproducing it as it supposedly is. In her own writings on children, Le Guin at once pushed back against this cultural tendency and sought to complicate it. She rejected the premise—one sometimes wrongly attributed to her—that children were unique fonts of wisdom. Simultaneously, she acknowledged that they carry us forward, with always uncertain results. “In our increasingly unstable, future-oriented, technology driven society, the young are often the ones who show the way, who teach their elders what to do,” she wrote. “The geezers are damned if they’re going to kowtow to the twerps—and vice versa.”

Le Guin’s writing on such intergenerational reckonings was not, in her way of thinking, an attempt to articulate a site of conflict. Instead, it was her way of demanding that we grapple with the inevitability of difference. Le Guin did not see the future as a destination, but as an encounter—an encounter with otherness most of all. Ceaselessly coming, the mechanics of time can only ever bring us up short, alienating us from the world we thought we understood, and, in the process, reminding us that we are aliens too.

Consider the story she tells of meeting a rattlesnake while visiting an “old ranch in the Napa Valley.” She hears the serpent’s buzz (“the first communication”) and the creature freezes, attentive as it is to Le Guin’s movement in response to the sound. But when she shouts at her husband, the creature does not respond, reminding her that it cannot “hear” as we do, such that it only experiences its “own rattle as a vibration in [its] body.” To survive, these two animals—Le Guin and the snake—must negotiate their corporeal difference from one another, but they can only do so in their own terms. Much the same is true of a lynx she comes to love at Bend, Oregon’s High Desert Museum in another essay. “His isolation from his natural, complex wilderness habitat is grievous and unnatural,” she writes. “But his aloofness, his aloneness, is the truth of his own nature. He retains that nature, brings it among us unchanged. He brings us the gift of his indestructible solitude.”

That line concludes her essay on the lynx. Le Guin—like James Joyce, who she disliked—had a talent for epiphanic endings. Good endings, she showed us, are not gravestones that mark what once was, but openings to what might yet be. This is why the present always shades into the future when we study it closely—whether it arrives in the implacable fact of aging or the snake’s steady gaze—because it shows us that this moment is always other to what has been and what we have known.

This was Le Guin’s gift in her fiction and nonfiction alike. Raised by anthropologists, she taught us that we can reach out to our others, even when the voids—of biology, of time, of space, literal and figurative—between us seem to make such contact impossible. She understood this because she knew that the future will always make us aliens to ourselves. The aliens, she taught us, are already here.

Read more in Slate about Ursula K. Le Guin.