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The Cosmic Pull

5. Ursula Le Guin Boxed Set

On loan from Josephine F. Dickinson.

When it comes to space enthusiasm I love the big ‘what if’ questions; what if humans met another intelligent alien species? What if humans originated from Mars or elsewhere? What if we are being observed by an alien species? And if so, for what purpose? What if we are simply alone in this vast cosmos? The list could go on. I love all that speculation, it’s the same with the Fermi Paradox - if it’s highly likely that life exists elsewhere, then where are they all? - I think about that a lot, I enjoy things that make my brain hurt a little. This is why I love speculative science-fiction; it imagines these questions, creatively brings life to their possibilities. I particularly love Le Guin’s work because she focuses on the individual life-stories and interspecies relations of the people that inhabit these imaginary worlds from a deeply anthropological perspective, indeed, the Ekumenical diplomats / researchers who go on the voyages to other planets essentially act as Xenoanthropologists to the populations there.

The basic ‘what if’ question of all the Hainish novels and stories is: What if humans were actually one group of descendants of another alien race who colonised the cosmos hundreds of thousands of years ago? Le Guin calls this alien mother-race the Hainish and they live on the mother-planet Hain. The novels and stories in this collection form a network of interactions, a sort of haphazard mosaic, between the people of the colonised worlds with each other, with non-Hanish species, and with the Hainish and their alliance of planets called the League of All Worlds (which in later works is refashioned as the Ekumen).

I actually started reading this collection after completing my postgraduate studies in Anthropology at UCL in 2020, it kept me sane during the pandemic, particularly as I had to shield. In many ways it also felt like ongoing research (albeit less intense because it’s fiction) to my thesis, which explored the messy ethical entanglements between human and nonhuman animal species here on Earth - or Terra, as it is in the Hainish cycle - using a modified multispecies actor-network methodology and ending with a chapter on the interplanetary implications of using sentientist ethics to guide policy-making practices. Being immersed in Le Guin’s fictional alternative universe over the pandemic years felt like a true mental escape from the very scary reality we were all living in, it made me really understand the value of fiction as a tool to think with, it is a world I will forever revisit and find joy in, and for these reasons and more I treasure it dearly.

The Cosmic Pull