Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin, Final Paper, Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman, May 17, 2007

This is the sixteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote this essay as the final project in ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. This module was challenging and fun. We read a lot of Le Guin’s writing alongside criticism, theory, and historical context. Around this time, I also had read Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. The overlapping resonance in their works led me to write this essay.

At the end of the essay, after its works cited list, I am including a Coda that I cut from the first draft in order to fit the assignment’s word count. Also, it wasn’t germane to my overall discussion. However, including it here might be useful for readers interested in other fictions related to the three discussed in the main essay by Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

May 17, 2007

Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman

Years ago at an MLA conference I saw a young man, a graduate student, read a paper on one of Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction novels.  After he had finished and it was time for discussion, a handsome, middle aged woman at the back of the room rose and said emphatically, “You’re wrong.  I didn’t.”  It was Le Guin.

Joanna Russ, “Letter to Susan Koppelman”

Writing academic criticism about living authors is a problematic enterprise, particularly involving metaphorical and textual meanings, but it’s a practical and essential element of literary exploration and discussion.  Regardless of the intentions of authors, readers bring their own point of view and cultural education to a text, so there are myriad connections between stories and cultural frameworks in which these texts are situated.  A significant intersection within the cultural web has do to with SF stories about the Vietnam War and the loss of a voice from the objectified alien other.

War, military conquest, and military adventure all have a long history in SF.  However, the stories that came out during and around the hot zone phase of the Cold War (i.e., around the time of the Korean War and more markedly, the Vietnam War) show a growing disparity of belief involving the militarized might makes right in earlier SF.  To explore the shift in tone and meaning of military SF as a social message, it’s best to begin by looking at the text most recognizably identified as the model for post-WWII military SF:  Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  Following that work are the very different, but analogously connected anti-Vietnam War texts:  Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.  Haldeman’s novel is a reaction to Heinlein’s militarized future seemingly always at war with the alien other.  Le Guin’s novel, based on her earlier 1972 novella of the same name, goes beyond the singular voice of the war makers and includes the cacophony of voices on both sides of conflict.  Her approach, as illustrated in many of her earlier works, is a more elaborate synthesis of the (mis)communication and (mis)understandings that lead to war (i.e., the aggressive self-righteous and apparently technologically superior oppressing the native alien other and the oppressed appropriating the power of the oppressor in order to fight back and gain agency in the power system engaged between the two groups).

“The Only Good Bug is a Dead Bug”

It’s important to put Haldeman’s and Le Guin’s identifiably anti-Vietnam War texts in perspective both textually and historically, and this is best accomplished by looking at Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, because it set the stage for future SF works dealing with the military and war themes.  Starship Troopers is historically located at the historical apex of the first phase of the Cold War.  The novel was originally published six years after the end of the Korean War, five years before the Gulf on Tonkin Incident, and the same year as the Cuban Revolution and the founding of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.  Strictly speaking, this is a novel created in the midst of the Cold War as well as at the crux of some of the bloodiest ‘hot spots’ in the protracted conflict between Western and Eastern powers during that era.  Instead of presenting a reaction against protracted and ambiguous wars, Heinlein presents a militarist utopic future that glorifies the role of the soldier as the only person capable and permitted to be a voting citizen.  The author idealizes the military and the way he believes the military could be employed to elevate the citizenry of a future society.  However, the way in which Heinlein engages the conflict between humanity and the alien other (i.e., the Skinnies and the Bugs) are the most telling elements of the novel despite the fact that human-alien conflict actually occupies a small portion of the text in comparison to his utopic world building.

The reader learns about Heinlein’s militarized future and the war with the Bugs through the protagonist and narrator, Juan “Johnnie” Rico.  It’s interesting that the author chose to have a narrator who is decidedly Filipino as evidenced by his name and the fact that he tells Bernardo at the end of chapter thirteen that his native language is Tagalog (Heinlein 218).  The Philippines are a strategic military location for the United States, particularly during World War II and the subsequent Korean War, both of which took place prior to the novel’s publication.  For all of the novel’s flaws, Heinlein’s presentation of racial equality on Earth is one positive element of an otherwise militaristic future utopia, and I mean utopia in the sense that it’s a wish fulfillment on the part of the author, otherwise it’s decidedly a dystopia for the civilians sans suffrage.

The other element of Johnnie’s character has to do with Heinlein’s choice for his name.  First, his nickname, Johnnie, recalls the famous American World War I song, “Over There.”  Written by George M. Cohan in 1917, it begins, “Johnnie, get your gun/Get your gun, get your gun/Take it on the run…Over there, over there.”  Hence, one of the nicknames of Americans fighting in the Great War:  Johnnies.  This creates a dual identity for Johnnie as both American as well as a member of a group of people ceded from Spain to the United States following the Spanish-American War, and eventually achieving independence after World War II.  Johnnie’s first name, Juan, derives from the Spanish form of Hebrew names such as Yohanan, which may be translated as “God favors.”  This may be true as the narrative follows Johnnie through training and battles until the final drop, which provides an ambiguous ending possibly to Johnnie’s life as well as that of the war.  His last name, Rico, is of Italian origin and its root meaning is rich or powerful.  Johnnie is from an apparently wealthy family, but his mother and father lack enfranchisement, because they have not served a term in the military, which is necessary before one is allowed to vote.  Another way of looking at his name, according to root meanings, is that Juan Rico means “God favors the rich” or by extension, “God favors the bold.”  This bears a similarity with Virgil’s famous quote, “Audentes fortuna iuvat” or “Fortune favors the bold.”  This often quoted motto can easily be used as a call to arms, particularly for the military hegemony of Johnnie’s future reality in the twenty-eighth century are bold in their routing of alien species in the planned annexation of more planetary space for humanity.

Johnnie’s bold comrades in arms come from all corners of the Earth in their united attack on the alien other.  This is an interesting turnabout by Heinlein that seems to point to the possibility that people will always find an alien other.  After (most) vestiges of inequality along racial and gender lines are removed, humanity has to look elsewhere for the alien other to objectify and therefore, become the literal and figurative targets of humanity’s need for a group to lower in comparison to ourselves.  Heinlein create two literal alien species in the novel, known only by their derogatory names:  the Skinnies and the Bugs.  There is only one battle, in the first chapter, with the Skinnies.  Johnnie describes them as, “local yokels,” and, “geezers [that are] humanoid, eight or nine feet tall, much skinnier than we are…[and] they don’t wear any clothes” (Heinlein 15 and 16).  Johnnie, clad in his “powered suit” that looks like “a big steel gorilla” leaps over buildings firing as many weapons as possible so that he rejoins the other soldiers with all ammunition expended.  Of course, the side effect of using a great deal of rockets, miniature nuclear bombs, and a flame thrower in close proximity to the enemy, there is a lot of collateral damage, carnage, and death.

Heinlein’s treatment of the Bugs is even more telling about the way the enemy is objectified in the course of military engagements.  Halfway through the novel, Johnnie describes them as:

The Bugs are not like us…They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive” (Heinlein 117).

The enemy’s human-given derogatory name, ‘Bugs,’ itself implies a pest, which necessitates eradication.  The multicultural and racially diverse Mobile Infantry belies the racial hatred and prejudice of the alien Skinnies and Bugs.  Additionally, these eusocial arthropod-like organisms represent an evolved form of communism, which mirrors social Darwinian issues propounded by earlier authors such as H.G. Wells.

Heinlein’s Bugs are colonizing social insects on a much larger and more developed scale than mere pests.  They are clearly intelligent creatures, albeit different that ourselves, but nonetheless worthy of a narrative voice.  What is their side’s view of the conflict?  What do the inhabitants of Klendathu think of humanity and humanity’s military?  Heinlein, through Johnnie, removes all volition and agency on the part of the Bugs.  The fact that it is an intelligent and evolved species means nothing, because they are not us.  Their difference marks them, like their given name, as worthy only of a boot stomping on them forever, and this itself leads to an unwitting reversal on humanity, which I’ll return to in more depth later in this paper.

The ambiguity of the Bug war along with the one-sided view presented to the reader combine to shutout the alien other from any possibility of discourse.  As a Cold War narrative, Starship Troopers mirrors the ambiguity of the post-WWII tension and remotely engaged overt hostilities between the democratic West and the communist East.  For the West, it was impossible to popularly envision giving a voice, much less a privileged voice, to communist sympathizers or Politburo officials.  The reason for this is the West’s view of the subversive nature of communism.  Giving the enemy (i.e., the communists) a voice would be adverse to the stability of democracy.  Heinlein recreated this political narrative of his here-and-now in the pages of his military SF masterpiece.  The Bugs are an enemy that lie under the surface, hidden, burrowing to find new avenues of escape into the open, which represents the political consciousness of the West (i.e., privileged humanity).  Therefore, the Bugs cannot be allowed to speak, because they would undermine the military and political effort to eradicate both their race as well as their (literally) evolved political ideology.

Heinlein’s novel is not about the Vietnam War, but it sets the stage for future military SF stories.  However, it is written on the heels of the Korean War, which has many parallels with the Vietnam War.  One of those parallels is the continuous nature of protracted war in the post-WWII era.  Joe Haldeman and Ursula K. Le Guin draw on this as well as issues of voice, agency, and enemy identities as presented in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in their Vietnam War based SF works, which are as much a reaction against Heinlein’s treatise as the war itself.

When Will This War Ever End?

In the “Authors Note” at the beginning of the 2004 Gollancz edition of The Forever War, Joe Haldeman writes that it, “was not an easy book to sell back in the early seventies.  It was rejected by eighteen publishers before St. Martin’s Press decided to take a chance on it.”  The publishers that turned him down said to Haldeman, “Pretty good book…but nobody wants to read a science fiction novel about Vietnam” (“Authors Note”).  And Vietnam is precisely what the novel is about, because as Haldeman writes, “that’s the war the author was in,” but he also says, “it’s mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need them” (“Authors Note”).

Haldeman’s novel is a reaction to the year he spent as a draftee in Vietnam in 1968-1969 (ten years after the publication of Starship Troopers), and it relies on the military SF history provided by works such as those by Heinlein and earlier pulp stories by E.E. “Doc” Smith.  Like Starship Troopers, the majority of the novel is concerned with the minutiae of soldiering life, though not as much about the training as in Heinlein’s novel.  However, this is reflective of the differences in the two authors’ military backgrounds.  Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy on an officer track prior to the Second World War.  Haldeman was a Vietnam draftee who, as did many of the young soldiers from that war, received basic training and were subsequently dumped into the action just as the reader is at the beginning of The Forever War with the opening line, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man” (3).

William Mandella, the protagonist and narrator of The Forever War, does in fact kill.  However, like Johnnie Rico, the military encounters are few and far between.  Both novels, as Haldeman claims about his own novel, are “about soldiers and about the reasons we think we need them” (“Authors Note”).  The role of the soldier, or in this case, William Mandella, is integral to our understanding of the alien other, because he’s the soldier who interacts with the alien other through the sights of a loaded weapon.

Haldeman’s protagonist’s name is an interesting choice that has meaning within the context of humanity and its relationship with the alien other.  First, William has its origins in German, but it’s a widely popular name in English speaking countries and in particular the United States, but it has also been the name of several notable kings and historical figures.  The German version of William is Wilhelm, which breaks down into the roots, der Wille and der Helm.  Der Wille means will or volition and der Helm means helmet or protection.  As a soldier, his will is to protect the fatherland, and to fight promotes his will.  However, he’s an educated person who is a draftee.  His family name, Mandella, is more engaging due to its obvious association with the word, mandala.  A mandala is a symbol, sometimes described as a dynamic symbol, or as an archetype in Jungian psychology that represents the unity of self and completeness.  Haldeman’s choice here is almost, but not nearly as transparent as Stephenson’s Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash.  Here, Haldeman is clearly employing this character to represent something else.  This includes the eponymous everyman soldier involved in a conflict that is far removed from their experience and everyday reality, but it also must mean the divided individual who through training and subversion has found him or herself changed and made less whole by the experience of engaging in war making.  Another example of this kind of mandalic character is Joseph Heller’s ambivalent Captain John Yossarian in his 1961 novel about World War II, Catch-22, which might have also been another of Haldeman’s influences.

It wasn’t Mandella’s desire to be a soldier, but the military provides his volition, or rather, removes his volition and replaces it with theirs through the use of post-hypnotic suggestions.  In the first battle with the Taurans, Sergeant Cortez (the similarity of the name with the Spanish conquistador is unmistakable), shouts over the com channel to his subordinates:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled;

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victory (Haldeman 66)!

This is the opening stanza to Robert Burns’ poem, “Scots Wha Hae.”  The poem is meant to be what Bruce said to his troops prior to the Battle of Bannockburn against Edward II.  This is an ironic selection for the future military to chose, because the poem also refers to the oppression of the Scottish by the English.  The poem’s future purpose is an oppression of the will of the soldiers, because it turns them into killing machines.  It obviates the possibility of discussion with the alien other, the Taurans.  Therefore, the poem’s meaning is subverted to a military need for a breakdown in communication, because without communication, the propagation and continuation of war is able to continue unimpeded.

The military needs the disconnect between individuals on humanity’s side and the objectified Taurans as targets (possibly another word association on the author’s part).  After the war begins with a Gulf of Tonkin-like incident between Terran and Tauran ships far from Earth, the unwillingness of the humans to discuss the situation with the other side illustrates the extent humanity will go to in order to ostracize and make an object of other groups:  in this case, literal aliens.  Toward this end, the author is skillful in selecting what the reader is presented in terms of physical description of the Taurans in order to promote the objectification taking place within the narrative.  For example, the soldiers don’t really know what a Tauran even looks like on their first mission.  At first, they mistake what they call “teddy bears” as the Taurans.  Unfortunately, the soldiers are wrong, and that species’ psionic powers kills or debilitates several humans with psychic abilities.  Then, when the platoon actually encounters the Tauran forces, Mandella describes them thus:

The creature riding it was a little more human-looking than the teddy bears, but still no prize…He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands.  Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint.  Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis.  His arms looked surprisingly human, except that they were too long and undermuscled.  There were too many fingers on his hands…His head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest.  Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassels instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his adam’s apple should have been (Haldeman 59-60).

Mandella continually compares the Tauran with humans as the norm.  Also, his “nightmarish” description of “eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs” and “a bundle of tassels instead of a nose” are reminiscent of BEMS.  Haldeman’s alien other is objectified as being too foreign, and too strange, to be acknowledged as a group of individuals with minds, opinions, and volition.  The slaughter of the Taurans that follows this description further reinforces the lack of volition and agency on the part of the aliens, and literally makes the beings targets for the human military machine.  However, Haldeman’s objective is differentiated from that of Heinlein.  The Forever War is about Vietnam and the military practices that Haldeman experienced while in the military.  U.S. soldier’s identification of the Viet Cong as “Charlie,” drawing from the racist Charlie Chan films, is one way in which the enemy were made objectified targets by the military in order to rationalize and relieve soldiers’ consciences about the wholesale slaughter induced in the protracted “conflict.”

Everyone Deserves a Voice

Ursula K. Le Guin is known for her anthropological approach to SF in many of her stories.  In some novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness, the reader is presented with different, and sometimes contradicting, observations from two different characters.  Having a shifting narrative, particularly when Genly Ai and Estraven are on the frozen wasteland of Gethen, reveals the way in which deceptively simplistic matters such as gender and cultural norms are far more complex than at the first look.  Other stories, such as Le Guin’s “The Matter of Seggri” read like an anthropological notebook full of stories by Seggrians as well as Hainish observers along with anecdotes and other miscellanea.  Another story of this kind is her novel, Always Coming Home, which was also released with its own soundtrack of imagined songs of the Kesh in the far future of Northern California.

In these stories and many of her others, Le Guin is actively working to answer the question, “What about the cultural and the racial Other?” (“American” 94).  What she means by the “racial Other” is, “the Alien everybody recognizes as alien, supposed to be the special concern of SF” (“American” 94).  The alien other is an important element of SF, but the way in which authors engage and challenge our understanding of it has changed over time.  For example, “in the old pulp SF it’s very simple.  The only good alien is a dead alien–whether he is an Aldebaranian Mantis-Man or a German dentist” (“American” 94).  Here, Le Guin is talking about BEMS (Bug Eyed Monsters), which are a recurring component of SF, particularly in the pulp era.  Its in this passage that she’s also referring to the presentation of the alien other in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War.  In both cases, aliens are targets, not real characters/beings/persons.  What constitutes the alien other may not necessarily be an alien in the strictest sense of the word.  The alien other may be quiet familiar but objectified, given no voice, and therefore, without volition or agency.

The objectification of the alien other in this manner elicits a power relationship between the subject with power and the objectified without power.  This kind of power relationship can lead to a turnabout for the power subject:

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality.  You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship.  And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.  You have, in fact, alienated yourself (“American” 95).

Le Guin argues that turning others into mere things, “has been remarkably strong in American SF” (“American” 96).  This leads to what we encounter in Starship Troopers and The Forever War, to which Haldeman was ironically reacting against:

The only social change presented by most SF has been toward authoritarianism, the domination of ignorant masses by a powerful elite–sometimes presented as a warning, but often quite complacently.  Socialism is never considered as an alternative, and democracy is quite forgotten.  Military virtues are taken as ethical ones (“American” 95).

Heinlein’s military-only enfranchised citizenry serves as the power elite in Starship Troopers, and even though it isn’t fully developed, the reader is capable of extrapolating the perpetuation of war as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and un-disguising Eisenhower’s conception of the military-industrial complex gone awry and power hungry.  Additionally, Heinlein builds a moral and ethical system around military codes of conduct in the didactic “History and Moral Philosophy” classroom flashbacks.  Haldeman’s William Mandella finds himself drawn to the ‘security’ and ‘safety’ of the military, because the author inverts the battlefield with the home front.  The ignorant masses of civilians are unfettered by the power elite who pursue war while neglecting social systems and the civilization at home on Earth.  War for war’s sake is pursued until the two sides in the conflict, humanity and the Taurans, come together to discuss how the conflict began, and that it should end before both species were destroyed not necessarily from without, but from within.  However, the reader doesn’t actually get to hear this from a Tauran, but from far future descendants of humanity.

Le Guin must have had these stories or similar military SF stories in mind when she wrote The Word for World Is Forest.  She originally penned the story as a novella in 1968 while she was staying in London for a year, and she titled it, “The Little Green Men.”  Before it’s inclusion in Harlan Ellison’s collection, Again, Dangerous Visions, he “retitled it, with [her] rather morose permission” (Word 7).  She describes the source for writing the story as a need to fill a void left by her disengagement with the anti-war movement in the United States.  She writes in the introduction to the novel:

All through the sixties, in my home city in the States, I had been helping organise and participating in non-violent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Viet Nam.  I don’t know how many times I walked down Alder Street in the rain, feeling useless, foolish, and obstinate (Word 7).

Her involvement against the rise of Eisenhower’s prophesied military-industrial complex ran the gamut of Cold War conflict escalation.  In England, she was disconnected from the outlet that she enjoyed in the United States, which was to non-violently demonstrate against the Johnson-Nixon-Kissinger mushroom cloud carrying a fallout of death and suffering from promoting Western ideology by treating other groups of people as objects and not subjects.

The Word for World is Forest is constructed around the importance of voices, even those most disgusting and reviling.  The novel’s narrative is presented through the voices of three males involved in the struggle on a planet distant from Earth known as Athshe, which means ‘forest’ in the native language.  Two of these narrators are Terrans from Earth and the third is a native Athsean.  It’s important to consider hidden meanings in the choice of names, because as Le Guin has stated in the introduction to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in her collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:

I sat down and started a story, just because I felt like it, with nothing but the word “Omelas” in mind.  It came from a road sign:  Salem (Oregon) backwards…Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace.  Melas.  O melas.  Omelas.  Homme hélas.  “Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?”  From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally.  Where else? (276)

However, this example illustrates that more than reading road signs backwards goes into the pool from which she catches her stories.  Stream of consciousness and word association plays an integral part into developing the seed that germinates into a realized story.  For this reason, some attention should be directed towards possible points of origin for the names of the protagonists in The Word for World is Forest.

Chapters one, four, and seven are explicated from the perspective of Captain Davidson.  This character is best described as a purely evil person who has a near-psychotic self-righteousness that manifests itself in his debasement of the Athseans or creechies as well as of other Terrans including his commanding officer.  Further scrutiny of his name may belie Le Guin’s choice for it.  Davidson is a surname of English origin that literally means, “Son of David.”  However, this character is no Solomon!  Another connection may come from historical persons involved in the Vietnam War.  Two notable persons are Lieutenant General Phillip Buford Davidson, Jr., who served as Westmoreland’s J-2 in Vietnam  (Ford par. 18), and Major General Alexander K. Davidson, who provided tactical airlift services to the Vietnam theater of operations during the late 1960s (Air Force Link par. 4).  However, it’s most likely that Le Guin wanted to place Davidson in opposition to Captain Raj Lyubov not only in their firmly held beliefs of one another, but also through the connection between Davidson’s English name and Raj’s given name, which implies the British term of empire in India.  Therefore, further conjuring the image of the oppressors and the oppressed, and by extension, the oppressed and the formerly oppressed seeking to help out those persons in a similar situation.

Captain Raj Lyubov occupies chapters three and five.  He makes a point to learn Selver’s true name and to become his friend after Captain Davidson nearly kills Selver.  Lyubov is a “spesh” or a specialist and scientist.  In essence, he’s Le Guin’s avatar or representative within the narrative as an anthropologist trying to figure out these native relatives of humanity.  His name is particularly interesting.  His given name, Raj, literally means ruler, prince, or royalty, but it also reminds the reader of England’s imperialistic history and its oppression of India during the ‘Raj.’  He’s not a character to actively aid Selver’s people, but he doesn’t warn his own people about an impending attack, which in itself is a traitorous act of rebellion against oppression.  Additionally, his surname, Lyubov is typically identified as a feminine Russian given name.  Could this imply that Lyubov has a ‘feminine’ side, or that he’s a hybrid personality that exhibits both the masculine and the feminine?  He’s in a male dominated military hierarchy, but he’s willing to consider and question the masculine rape of the land while not actively participating in it himself.  His full name also implies this hybridity, because of its combination of Indian and Russian names.  Le Guin fashions the other (i.e., Indo-Asian) with Davidson’s assumed ethnic superiority as ‘white’ while touching on a unity bridging the West and the East during the midst of the Cold War.

Selver, the native Athshean, occupies chapters two, six, and eight.  He’s the most powerful character in the novel, but he comes from a world without the power relationships inherent on Earth at that time or in Le Guin’s future.  His people invest great meaning in dreams and their interpretation.  Selver’s dreams lead him to a realization of how to remove the oppressors by appropriating the Earthmen’s tool of murder.  Of the three main characters, Selver’s name is the most interesting, and the one possibly the most full of hidden meanings.  Relying on Le Guin’s use of word play, it’s useful to explore anagrams of Selver and his home world, Athshe.  Two telling anagrams of Athshe are heaths and sheath.  A heath is land that has not yet been developed.  Before the arrival of Terrans to Athshe, the Athsheans lived in harmony with the land.  The Terrans’ develop the land by clear cutting it of all wood.  This development is actually destructive both to the planet and to its native inhabitants, and the act of destruction is itself in part handled by the natives in their forced support of the Terran occupiers.  The other anagram, sheath, implies a weapon not yet drawn.  The weapon is Selver’s awakening from dream with the means to lead and unify his people to remove the oppressors from Athshe.  Selver has two anagrams that describe his character.  One is revels, which comes from Old French, reveler, which means to rise up in rebellion.  The other is levers.  The obvious connection here is to Archimedes’ boast that given a long enough lever and place to stand, he could move the Earth.  What is more interesting is Thomas Paine’s use of Archimedes’ story in relation to the American revolution in his 1791 treatise, The Rights of Man.  He wrote, “What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers, may be applied to Reason and Liberty: ‘Had we,’ said he, ‘a place to stand upon, we might raise the world.’ The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics” (Paine, par. 1 and 2).  Selver is the revolutionary both in action and ideology.  He brings the ideas of revolution from the dream realm to the reality of his oppressed people.  As Paine argues, “Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think,” it is true too that Selver is the person to break free of “the slavery of fear” (par. 2).

Le Guin’s three protagonists create a spectrum of views within the conflict on Athshe between the Terrans and the Athsheans.  Lyubuv and Davidson are two opposing views on the Terran side.  Evoking her use of dualisms, these two characters represent good/evil, liberally open-minded/conservatively closed-minded, sane/psychotic, low self-confidence/egomaniacal self-image, and anthropologist-observer-preserver/soldier-reconnoiter-destroyer.  Together, Lyubuv and Davidson provide a Taoist resolution to humanity’s division.  Then, Selver is part of another Taoist matrix amongst his people as well as the other:  humanity.  Among the people of the Forty Lands, he is a god, a bringer of new ideas from the dream world to the waking world.  Unfortunately, he brings death and murder, but these are concepts also imported by humanity to Athshe by their inhumane treatment of the Athsheans and their contemptuous wholesale destruction of a once viable ecosystem.  Creating an analogous three dimensional matrix, Le Guin writes Selver as the other half of a ying-yang image with humanity.  Selver represents the living, but assumedly fragile forest, with his green fur and small stature.  However, he, like the forest containing his people, is a spring waiting to unleash its stored energies against the encroaching humans who threaten his world and his utopic existence.  In some ways, humanity in this story may feel threatened by the possibility of a utopic pastoral existence as that experienced by the Athsheans and it’s for this reason that their world and people are made to suffer.  Therefore, Le Guin completes her narrative of opposites with Selver appropriating the means of the oppressor to gain the respect and agency from humanity, and she accomplishes this both literally in the story and figuratively by giving Selver and his people a narrative voice, history, and spiritual life that one may only assume about Heinlein’s Bugs or Haldeman’s Taurans.


            These three political works by Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin operate within a shared cultural space in the historical moment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  These texts directly engage the increasingly technologized means of warfare and its relationship with political ideologies in ways that are unavailable to mainstream popular culture.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that Frederik Pohl argues, “there is very little science fiction, perhaps even that there is no good science fiction at all, that is not to some degree political” (7).  And, it’s the political message(s) within Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and The Word for World is Forest that make them enduring works.  However, these three novels remain classics, because they each spoke to and about a politically divisive time in the third quarter of the twentieth century.  They were engaged by readers at the time in which they were first published as well as in the intervening years to the present.  Just as much as these stories evoked what was in the minds of readers then, they continue to give the present an understanding and awareness of the times in which they were written.

Of these three authors, Le Guin creates a synthesis of the military SF tropes along with her recognizably anthropological approach to SF.  Her decision to do this facilitates multiple narrative voices that are necessary to better understanding the complexities of war and the way people on different sides of a conflict objectify and subjugate the alien other.

Works Cited

Burns, Robert.  “Scots Wha Hae.”  19 March 2002.  7 April 2007 <;.

Cohan, George M.  “Over There.”  2 August 2002.  7 April 2007 <;.

“Davidson, Major General Alexander K.”  Air Force Link.  September 1991.  6 April 2007 <;.

Ford, Harold P.  “Episode 3, 1967-1968: CIA, the Order-of-Battle Controversy, and the Tet Offensive.”  CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers:  Three Episodes 1962-1968.  1998.  6 April 2007 <;.

Haldeman, Joe.  The Forever War.  London:  Gollancz, 2004.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Heinlein, Robert A.  Starship Troopers.  London:  New English Library, 1977.

Le Guin, Ursula K.  “American SF and the Other.”  The Language of the Night.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.  93-96.

—.  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  London:  Gollancz, 2000.  275-284.

—.  The Word for World is Forest.  London:  Victor Gollancz, 1977.

Orwell, George.  Nineteen Eighty-Four.  London:  Penguin, 2000.

Paine, Thomas.  “Introduction to Part the Second.”  The Rights of Man.  9 April 1998.  6 April 2007 <;.

Pohl, Frederik.  “The Politics of Prophecy.”  Political Science Fiction.  ed. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox.  Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  7-17.

Russ, Joanna.  “Letter to Susan Koppelman.”  To Write Like a Woman:  Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1995.  171-176.

Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1992.


Coda to the above essay’s first draft.

One anti-Vietnam SF story that predates Le Guin’s novel, but provides multiple voices in a tangential way, is J.G. Ballard’s “The Killing Ground,” which shows how in a “world wide Vietnam,” English insurgents respond to captured American troops, and how an American officer uses his voice to mislead the English commander.  Another Vietnam era story is Gene Wolfe’s “Feather Tigers,” which is about an alien anthropologist studying the ruins of Earth, but it refuses to acknowledge the stories about the Mekong River Valley from a human created A.I. artifact.  A recent work similar to “Feather Tigers” is Robert J. Sawyer’s novel, Humans, which offers an interesting chapter that features different voices, one from our universe and one from a parallel Earth populated by Neanderthals, talking about the Vietnam War while looking at the memorial in Washington, D.C..  And finally, Bill Campbell’s Sunshine Patriots combines Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin in a reactionary story against the John Wayne mythos and the first Iraq War.

Works Cited

Ballard, J.G.  “The Killing Ground.”  The Day of Forever.  London:  Panther, 1971.  138-146.

Campbell, Bill.  Sunshine Patriots.  Tucson:  Hats Off Books, 2004.

Sawyer, Robert J.  Humans.  New York:  Tor, 2003.

Wolfe, Gene.  “Feather Tigers.”  The Norton Book of Science Fiction.  eds.  Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery.  London:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.  280-286.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.