In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and the Künstlerroman Tradition
  • Graham H. Jensen (bio)

If science fiction is … capable of being this, a true metaphor to our strange times, then surely it is rather stupid and reactionary to try to enclose it in the old limits of an old art—like trying to turn a nuclear reactor into a steam engine.

Ursula K. Le Guin
"Science Fiction and Mrs Brown"

The twentieth century did much to reinvent the idea of art by breaking down boundaries between art and everyday objects, with a concomitant shift in who creates art as an artist. We now inhabit a world of "artisanal" coffee and "bespoke" salads; it would seem that William Morris's arts and crafts movement is with us yet, with a comically exaggerated neoliberal twist. As Ursula K. Le Guin warned in 2014, "we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism" (Arons 114). For Le Guin, then, it would seem that art—no matter the medium, no matter the art object [End Page 87] (or lack thereof)—is valuable to a large extent because "resistance and change often begin in art." But on this occasion, as a writer addressing other writers, Le Guin emphasized "our art—the art of words" (Arons).

The role of art as something both embedded in and capable of subverting dominant ideologies broaches my reading of Le Guin's multiple award-winning science fiction (sf) novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974). The text hinges on its protagonist's attempts to effect revolutionary change through his own art: the art of numbers, of physics. This art occupies a special place in the text; it is not commercial, nor is it "ephemeral" like "the arts of words, poetry and storytelling" (157), since its theories have obvious practical applications. But its most notable application is the invention of the "ansible," a device that facilitates the instantaneous transmission of words. Still, more is at stake here than the utopian potential of Le Guin's writing. Like The Dispossessed's protagonist, Shevek, Le Guin revolutionized her field and galvanized action by bridging disparate spheres of knowledge. I argue Le Guin's dramatization of this kind of revolutionary synthesis in The Dispossessed was timely not only because of its intervention in contemporary debates about science and art, but in its depiction of the scientist as an artist to creatively reimagine the Künstlerroman ("artist's novel") subgenre.

After outlining the aesthetic and literary contexts for this discussion, I show how Le Guin presses the Künstlerroman's traditionally Romantic tropes and central figure into the service of an ambitious theory of art—one that appears aimed at ushering in a climate of detente between art and science. In the process, this theory also interweaves sf's pronounced but seemingly incompatible strands of utopian and Marxist thought.1 Leveraging the revolutionary, utopian potential linked to the figure of the Romantic artist but frequently denied art (for example, by those theorists for whom art serves largely to reproduce ideology), The Dispossessed parlays science's utilitarian function into an artistic process that imaginatively transcends its material and political origins, rehabilitating both science and art within a generic frame that is at once familiar and alien, conventional and revisionary. Recognizing the Künstlerroman form changes how we read Le Guin's narrative and its relationship to the intellectual debates of its time and also alters our understanding of the Künstlerroman tradition itself. [End Page 88]

Le Guin's novel rehabilitates science and art in ways that both reaffirm and complicate the theory of art developed in her dispersed essays and interviews. By giving her protagonist an urgent sense of moral purpose, for example, she ascribes to "objective" science an ethical function she elsewhere associates only with "subjective" art. This reconciliatory gesture seems deliberate, considering Le Guin's doubly critical view of sf, and of science more generally, in "Science Fiction and Mrs Brown" (first delivered as a lecture in 1975, just one year after the publication...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 87-113
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.