Writers gonna write. Fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin may have given up publishing fiction in her ’80s, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing: she’s been blogging since 2010. Internet citizens may want to know: does she write about her cat, Pard? Why yes, yes she does — while examining the human condition, of course. Robert Minto writes about Le Guin’s blog at New Republic.
A running theme is the life of her cat, Pard. Between each of No Time to Spare’s four topical sections are essays entitled “Annals of Pard.” Devoting such time and interest to the observation of a cat might seem to represent the commonest impulses both of internet culture and old age; but, as always, Le Guin wades into her new genre to deepen and expand it. When Pard brings her a living mouse to and drops it on her bed in the night, her solution is to lock them together in the kitchen until the mouse disappears (whether through elusion or ingestion, she doesn’t know). She reflects on the ethical implications and possible reasons for her resistance to intervention:
I want to say clearly that I do not believe any animal is capable of being cruel. Cruelty implies consciousness of another’s pain and the intent to cause it. Cruelty is a human specialty, which human beings continue to practice, and perfect, and institutionalize, though we seldom boast about it. We prefer to disown it, calling it “inhumanity,” ascribing it to animals. … Wild cat and wild mouse have a clear, highly developed, well-understood connection—predator and prey. But Pard’s and his ancestors’ relationship with human beings has interfered with his instincts, confusing that fierce clarity, half taming it, leaving him and his prey in an unsatisfactory, unhappy place.
The Old Dutch Cleanser logo is, in fact, threatening.
With eerie political timing, the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood’s prescient 1984 book The Handmaid’s Tale drops next month. In the introduction to a new edition, which also comes out in April, Atwood responds to the three most popular questions about it: Is her novel feminist? Is it a prediction? Is is anti-religious? In response to the third, she takes us through the influences that helped her build the world of the Handmaids.
The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene. Also, red is easier to see if you happen to be fleeing. The wives of men lower in the social scale are called Econowives, and wear stripes. I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child. Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple — and many have ruled behind a religious front. It makes the creation of heretics that much easier.
LE GUIN: My mother had always wanted to write. She told me this only after she’d started writing. She waited until she got the kids out of the house, until she was free of responsibility for anybody except her husband. Very typical of her generation. She was in her fifties when she started writing—for kids, which is how women often start. It’s not threatening to anybody, including themselves. And she published a couple of lovely little kids’ books.
She wanted to write novels, and she did write a couple, but they never found a publisher. But what happened was that she got asked to write the biography of Ishi. Of course they asked my father and he said, No way, I cannot handle that story. He’d lived that story and didn’t want to write it. He wasn’t a reminiscer. He said, I think you might ask my wife, she’s a good writer. And they did, and she did it. So her first published adult book was a best seller, which was wonderful for her! She was in her sixties then. I would get letters from people who said, I read your mother’s book and it made me cry! That pleased her enormously. She would say, That’s what it was supposed to do.
It was also interesting because my mother and I were almost working together trying to get published.
INTERVIEWER: What an unusual beginning, for both of you.
LE GUIN: She beat me to it! Which is cool. Because I was late and slow. A slow learner. But not as late as her. I love to tell her story because people—particularly women—need to hear that you can start late. She figured she could put it off, which shocked the strong feminists of twenty or thirty years ago. I don’t know if anybody gets shocked anymore. But a lot of people don’t realize how strong the social pressure was on women.