By Lambert Strether of Corrente
The wonderful Ursula Le Guin (87), the multiple Hugo Award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, Library of Congress “Living Legend,” and cat owner, has released her complete Hainish novels and stories are collected in a two-volume Library of America edition, Hain being a fictional planet, oldest culture in the Ekumen and supposedly the ultimate source of most intelligent life in the planets of the Ekumen (including Earth). One story in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle is “Solitude,” described by Le Guin:
The final story, “Solitude,” takes an even more radical view of personhood. Having been an introvert all my life in a society that adores extraversion, I felt it was time to speak up for myself and my people, to imagine for us a society where loners are the norm and the gregarious and self-advertising are the oddballs, the misfits. I invented a peculiar social arrangement involving an extreme kind of gender segregation, only tenuously connected to the extra/introversion theme. My fear of the ongoing human catastrophe of unlimited growth, imagery of the ruinous aftermath of overpopulation and mindless exploitation, which has haunted much of my science fiction for forty years or more, is very clear in the story. All the same, I ended up feeling quite at home on poor, impoverished Soro, a world without crowds, teams, or armies, where everybody is an oddball and a misfit.
Introverts have been having a bit of a moment since Susan Cain’s best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, was published in 2012. My favorite explanation of introversion comes in graphic form, and explains that “introverted people make their own energy. And rather than taking it from others give it on social contact. This means that they naturally find most interaction exhausting and need time to recharge.” (One contrasts the extroverted athlete, say, who “feeds off” the energy of others.) Cain gives the outward marks of introversion: “People who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.” By either of these two complementary definitions, Le Guin has imagined a whole planetary culture of such persons.
“Solitude,” then, has a unique take on two concepts of interest to NC readers, especially currently; I refer to politics, and class.
First, politics. From Ursula Le Guin, The Birthday of the World, “Solitude” (2002), pages 122 et seq. The story is told from the point of view of an anthopologists daughter, sent by the Ekumen to write a report on the people of Soro. The daughter:
The First Observer had been quite right: there was no way for a grown woman to know how to make her soul. Mother couldn’t go listen to another mother sing. It would have been too strange. The aunts all knew she hadn’t been brought up well, and some of them taught her a good deal without her realizing it. They had decided that her mother must have been irresponsible and had gone on scouting instead of settling in an auntring, so that her daughter didn’t get educated properly. That’s why even the most aloof of the aunts always let me listen with their children, so that I could become an educated person. But of course they couldn’t ask another adult into their houses.
Which seems quite natural to me! I rarely invited other adults into the house. (“Person” will be important later.) More:
Mother never got it right, not really. How could she, trying to learn it after she’s grown up, and after she’d always lived with magicians?
And “magic” (124):
… an art or power that violates natural law. It was hard for Mother to understand that some persons truly consider most human relationships unnatural; that marriage, for example, or government, can be seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers. It is hard for her people to believe magic.
And the definition of magic (133 and 134); Mother and daughter discuss technology versus magic in the context of a Sorovian myth:
“My dear,” [she said] “the explanation of an uncomprehended technology as magic is primitivism. It’s not a criticism, merely a description.”
“But technology isn’t magic,” I said.
Yes, it is, in their minds; look at the story you just recorded. Before-Time sorcerers who could fly in the air and undersea and undeground in magic boxes!”
“In metal boxes,” I corrected.
“In other words, airplanes, tunnels, submarines; a lost technology explained as supernatural.”
“The boxes weren’t magic,” I said. “The people were. They were sorcerers. To live rightly a person has to stay away from magic.”
For “power over” read “energy from,” and you can see that Le Guin has constructed an extreme version of a culture optimized for introverts (according to the first definition given). Now, I don’t advocate for living as the Sorovians do, but I do feel the Le Guin’s strange perspective is bracing and thought-provoking: Imagine a world where our entire political economy — including alternatives to it implicit within it, like socialism — is conceived of as taboo! Or where cultural practices, like rhetoric, or negotiation, or “entertainment,” are categorized as violations of the natural order! To live rightly a person has to stay away from magic…
Next, class (123):
When I told her the stories of the Before Time that Aunt Sadne and Aunt Noyit told their daughters and me, she often heard the wrong things in them. I told her about the People, and she said: “Those are the ancestors of the people here now.” When I said “There aren’t any here now,” she didn’t understand. “There are here now,” I said, but she still didn’t understand.
(The “Before Time” is the period before Sorovian civilization collapsed.) And when the Mother decides to leave Soro, taking the daughter (and the son) with her (135):
“It’s time, past time, that we all got back to our own people. All of us.”
“I have no ,” I said. “I don’t belong to people. I am trying to be a . Why do you want to take me away from my soul? You want me to do magic! I won’t. I won’t do magic. I won’t speak your language. I won’t go with you!
My mother was still not listening…
Now, when I think of the concept class, I think of a set, and a set membership function to determine who or what is a member of that set. For example, the working class (the set) is composed of people, persons who work for wages (the set membership function). The daughter regards treating persons as people — that is, applying a set membership function to them, and in particular herself — as magic (!). And when you think about the reasons our society classifies people, it’s hard not to see classification — for example, a “I-A” classification meant “available for military service” in the Vietnam War — through the daughter’s eyes as “power over,” therefore magic. After all, who invents and controls the classifications and applies the set membership functions?
Is Soro a “classless society”? You’ll have to read the story to find out; I’m not so sure. However, once again, Le Guin’s fiction provides a bracing perspective not found elsewhere. Is it possible to be a person without belonging to people, or a people? Personally, I doubt it. Our ability, indeed desire, to classify would never have arisen in nature had it not been adaptive; we even project order where there is no order. Nevertheless, food for thought over the weekend!
 Apply multiple set membership functions to people, look for the overlaps between the resulting sets, and you have Venn diagrams of intersectionality). Sets can be fuzzy.
 It may be so for women, but not for men.
 Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2:
HAMLET Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
HAMLET Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET Or like a whale.
POLONIUS Very like a whale.