In a packed ballroom full of students, faculty and community members, a wave of respectful silence fell over the crowd as Ursula Le Guin began reading out loud. Her quiet and calming voice hovered softly over the audience as her words, written in 1971, provoked ideas of climate change, race, income inequality and acquiring a sense of self.
Le Guin, author of this year’s common text “The Lathe of Heaven,” came to Seattle University to speak about the novel and answer audience questions and questions asked by moderator, Katherine Koppelman. Koppelman, the Director of University Core, was part of an initiative to help make this year’s common text fiction, a break from multiple non-fiction books of the last few years. Koppelman says that she hoped the move would help students to better engage with the novel and not only be challenged with questions of how to better our world, but also how to better understand and find oneself. George Orr, the novel’s main character, faces challenges in the novel that include learning how to find himself within the new realities he’s creating.
“He’s walking into a space where no one knows him and no one has the same memories that he does and he’s trying to find a place there,” Koppelman said. “That’s a big deal, how do you deal with walking into college and being given this opportunity?… You’re expected to make this new place for yourself, but you don’t want to let go what you brought with you.”
Le Guin spoke to this throughout her speech, referring to the ways in which Orr is seemingly passive, but simultaneously has a great capacity for change. “[Orr] is very unusual for being so usual,” she said.
It became clear early on during the event that Le Guin has a sense of humor and a sharp wit that one wouldn’t expect from such an unassuming person. She joked throughout the speech about different aspects of the book, including how the title of the book was a mistranslation of an old Chinese text.
“It was a such a splendid phrase [The Lathe of Heaven],” she said, “A great book title! But after the book had been out 10 or 15 years, I got a letter from a Chinese scholar who said ‘I love your book but they hadn’t invented lathes yet when the text was written? It’s a total mistranslation!”
When asked by an audience member whether she would change anything about the book now, she said that she would only change her poorer predictions concerning how the world would become [in] the 2000s
. “I thought that we would’ve gotten over the automobile,” she laughed.
Although many parts of the talk were lighthearted, Le Guin also spoke to struggles she had as an author, including having to overcome the male-dominated the world of science fiction. She credited the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s for giving her the courage to write as a woman. She was also criticized by an audience member for the disappearance of the only seemingly biracial character in the book after the world loses color in the novel.
“George couldn’t imagine Heather as colorless,” Le Guin said, “Her color was so much a part of her identity, that without it, she couldn’t exist.”
She was also questioned on what the generation of today can do to combat climate change. Her response was simple: “I don’t think anyone in my generation has any right to give younger generations advice on climate change.”
Some questions were left unanswered – a reminder that the art is no longer part of the artist when it goes out into the world and becomes something the audience themselves have to interpret. Throughout the speech, many were reminded of the core themes of the novel and that although these words were written so long ago, they still apply tontoday’s world.
At the end of the event, Le Guin received a standing ovation and flowers from the school, and left the audience asking the questions George Orr asked himself in “The Lathe of Heaven,” to what lengths will we go in order to make the world a better place?
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