The Queen of Quinkdom

The Birthday of the World is Ursula K. Le Guin’s tenth collection of stories. In it she demonstrates once again why she is the reigning queen of…but immediately we come to a difficulty, for what is the fitting name of her kingdom? Or, in view of her abiding concern with the ambiguities of gender, her queendom, or perhaps—considering how she likes to mix and match—her quinkdom? Or may she more properly be said to have not one such realm, but two?

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin; drawing by David Levine

“Science fiction” is the box in which her work is usually placed, but it’s an awkward box: it bulges with discards from elsewhere. Into it have been crammed all those stories that don’t fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the more formal parlor of historical fiction, or other compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, gothic romances, and the novels of war, crime, and spies. Its subdivisions include science fiction proper (gizmo-riddled and theory-based space travel, time travel, or cybertravel to other worlds, with aliens frequent); science-fiction fantasy (dragons are common; the gizmos are less plausible, and may include wands); and speculative fiction (human society and its possible future forms, which are either much better than what we have now, or much worse). However, the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.

The lineage of “science fiction,” broadly considered, is very long, and some of its literary ancestors are of the utmost respectability. Alberto Manguel has cataloged many in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places: Plato’s account of Atlantis is among them, and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Accounts of voyages to unknown realms with bizarre inhabitants are as old as Herodotus in his wilder moments, as old as The Thousand and One Nights, as old as Thomas the Rhymer. Folk tales, the Norse Sagas, and the adventure-romances of chivalry are not-so-distant cousins of such tales, and have been drawn on by hundreds of imitators of The Lord of the Rings and/or Conan the Conqueror—works which previously fetched their water from the same wells, as did their precursors, George MacDonald and the H. Rider Haggard of She.

Jules Verne is probably the best known of the early gizmo-fictionalists, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could be thought of as the first “science fiction”—that is, the first fiction that had real science in it—inspired as it was by experiments with electricity, in particular the galvanizing of corpses. Some of her preoccupations have stayed with the genre (or genres) ever since: most specifically, what is the price that must be paid by Promethean Man for stealing fire from Heaven? Indeed, some commentators have proposed “science fiction” as the last fictional repository for theological speculation. Heaven, Hell, and aerial transport by means of wings having been more or less abandoned after Milton, outer space was the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.