Ursula Le Guin sat calmly before hundreds of viewers packed in Sibley Auditorium as she expressed a composure that belied an imagination capable of creating worlds beyond belief.
Le Guin, 83, a renowned science fiction author, spoke Tuesday night in an interview organized by the UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities. Michael Lucey, a professor of French literature, asked Le Guin about her relationship to the characters in her stories and her perspectives on her writing.
“Books are mortal — they die,” Le Guin said. “A book is an act. It takes place in time — not just space. It’s not information but rather relation.”
Le Guin was born and raised in Berkeley, where at the age of 11 she submitted a science fiction story to a magazine and was quickly rejected. It was a case that Alan Tansman, director of the Townsend Center, said was reminiscent of the “record company that didn’t sign the Beatles.”
After establishing a writing career that spanned more than 50 years, Le Guin has fiercely proclaimed the importance of imagination.
“There is an American tendency to denigrate fantasy and the full use of the imagination,” Le Guin said. “People say, ‘I don’t read fantasy. I read the stock report.’ You always have to defend the imagination against idiots.”
Le Guin cites a number of influences that have had a significant effect on her work. Le Guin added that she uses the idea of cross-cultural interaction as a motivation for her writing, citing it as a “wonderful source” for character development.
Le Guin’s father, Alfred Kroeber, for whom Kroeber Hall bears its name, established the campus’s department of anthropology in 1901. Le Guin said that her father had an incredible influence on her and that, whether by “osmosis or similarity of nature,” they were both interested in ethnography and learning behaviors in a social context.
“(Anthropology) hints interests in concrete details, which is very important equipment for fantasists, because fantasy can so easily drift into the gaga,” Le Guin said at the event. “But if you tie it down to things, you make it real.”
Le Guin’s novels are acclaimed for their investigation of gender roles. In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” the characters are gender-neutral beings who can morph into males or females. The novel won her the Hugo and Nebula Awards, science fiction’s top honors.
“She weaves in feminism and race, which you don’t really see in other science fiction novels,” said Megan Luecke, a UC Berkeley alumna who attended the event. “She does this in a pretty subtle way and yet gives her novels an epic feel, like Tolkien.”
Virgie Hoban covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]