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Tuesday, 21 October 2008


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Joseph Kugelmass


Not that I want to revisit the whole fiber of the argument I made at the Valve about "Do You Believe In Magic?", but let's approach this question of LeGuin's novel specifically. McCann and Szalay read LeGuin as a product of her own era, almost as if she got her philosophy from "Let It Be" the song, and to an extent that's quite fair: whatever ideologies she draws upon, her way of using them will reflect her own historical moment.

Nonetheless, LeGuin is a Taoist. The kinds of statements she makes in The Lathe of Heaven echo, often word for word, the verses in the Tao Te Ching, which was written in the 6th Century BC and was not about technocracy as we understand it at the start of the 21st Century.

I raise this point because there is a chicken-and-egg problem here: is technocracy the result of what technology enables us to do, or is a modern version of debates about governance that have been ongoing for thousands of years? My problem with embracing the former version without hesitation or qualification is that it encourages us to see technocratic governance as something without precedent, and therefore as utterly plastic and unlimited in potential. We think technocracy is wrong because the example of the Soviet Union is so frightening, but we should just consider the New Deal -- that is what technocracy really ought to look like.

Throughout the essay there is a strong current of support for government-led solutions to social problems, and I find that entirely sympathetic. I wish we had another New Deal coming our way. That said, the most functional parts of the American democracy -- the ones we all learned about in high school government class -- involve impediments to progress, ways of creating inertia so that deliberation can win the day. In other words, it is a principle of sound government to "let things be" until a change gathers broad momentum, and it is a principle based on a certain view of human nature -- and that neither can nor should be historicized away.

Rich Puchalsky

I'm not sure why I'm vaguely troubled by Joseph's argument. I think it's because the "she's a Taoist, and the book echoes 6th century Taoism" claim doesn't really address how she became a Taoist. Since Taoism doesn't seem like it's a common part of the society in which she grew up -- although I don't really know anything about her biography -- it seems likely to me that she probably had Tao-like ideas first and then read around until she found Taoism. That's another way of agreeing with Joseph that this is part of a dispute about governance that has been going on thousands of years, yes, or she wouldn't have been able to find a 6th century BC source to adopt. But it also means that citing how her book quotes the Tao Te Ching blurs more than it reveals. Modern technocracy was, I think, thought of as "utterly plastic and unlimited in potential" in a way that didn't seem possible for earlier eras.

Consider, say, Qin Shi Huang. One of the things he was supposed to have done was to order all history books burnt, therefore ensuring that his reign would be the beginning of Chinese history. But it didn't work. Many books were burnt and people killed, but knowledge of the eras before him survived. His memory survives as that of a tyrant who tried to change history in an Orwellian fashion, but also as that of a failure. In The Lathe of Heaven, the rewriting of history appears at first to be essentially perfect. Of course it fails eventually -- Le Guin can't have it succeed and still have her book make its point -- but there is a long period in which it is terrifyingly perfect; only Orr and someone right near him when he dreams can even remember that there was a change. That's a difference in degree so great as to almost be a difference in kind. Just as the nuclear weapons that sparked all of those destroyed wastelands in SF of that time were still "just" weapons, and therefore inherited a long tradition of anti-war thought, but were still so much more greatly destructive that they really became a new sort of category.


Forgive me if I made this remark at The Valve at one time. I find McCann/Szalay's argument very useful and indeed both cite and build upon it in the hastily-written Afterword to my recent anthology. But it's a weakness in their argument that they style the Le Guin of that era a "feminist": it's clear from the 1975 Symposium on Women in Science Fiction (and especially its 1993 edition, with comments by most of the original contributors) that she rejected that label until a few years later. If one wants to critique a Leftie feminist's acceptance of post-WWII style anti-bureaucratic ideology, I think Stephen's tack of going after Piercy works better.

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