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February 7, 2017

Two known facts: 1) Ursula K. Le Guin is a paragon, and 2) There is no such thing as an “alternative fact”


The greatness of writer Ursula K. Le Guin is well documented and pretty well understood. Author of such science-fiction classics as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, the stalwart writer and thinker (and transcendent ambassador of the arts, and popular writing professor, and heroic opposer of all “loonybird” bullshit) is peerless in this world.

The universe is unanimous on this, if nothing else; which is to say, her excellence, her paragon-hood, is a fact.

And speaking of facts.

On January 31st, southeast Portlander Gordon Merseth wrote in to the Oregonian with a suggestion for all of these so-called “alternative facts” being touted by social deviants (and, as a matter of fact, liars) like Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and Donald Trump. Merseth begins his letter to the editor by noting that “alternative facts are not new,” arguing that they are necessary for writing fiction, and going on to cite them as the foundation of science fiction writing. He continues:

If our new administration has determined that alternative facts are necessary to support its worldview, maybe the universities now offering degrees in Political Science should offer a parallel set of courses called Political Fiction, supported of course by alternative facts (and eventually, alternative history). Faculty candidates could include Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and Sean Spicer. They would fit in well with SciFi legends like Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While it is true that writers of all types devise a kind of rule book of “alternative facts” when creating their fictional worlds, and admirable as the idea of a Political Fiction education may (or may not) be, Le Guin isn’t convinced such a comparison (to say nothing of Merseth’s solution to the problem of the Trump administration’s bandying about of “alternative facts”) really works, as her own letter in response to Merseth’s reveals. It’s worth quoting Le Guin’s response in full:

A recent letter in The Oregonian compares a politician’s claim to tell “alternative facts” to the inventions of science fiction. The comparison won’t work.  We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real—all invented, imagined—and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it “alternative history” or “an alternate universe,” but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are “alternative facts.”

Facts aren’t all that easy to come by. Honest scientists and journalists, among others, spend a lot of time trying to make sure of them.  The test of a fact is that it simply is so — it has no “alternative.”  The sun rises in the east.  To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie.

A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact.  Lies are told in order to reassure oneself, or to fool, or scare, or manipulate others. Santa Claus is a fiction.  He’s harmless. Lies are seldom completely harmless, and often very dangerous.  In most times, most places, by most people, liars are considered contemptible.

Repeat after Ursula K. Le Guin. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies. “Alternative facts” are lies.

Ad nauseam.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.