Le Guin on Differing Disaster Responses

Ursula K. Le Guin


As I’ve looked at different countries coping with coronavirus, a passage from an Ursula Le Guin science fiction story comes to mind. In “Nine Lives” she suggests that culture helps explain why some countries respond better to catastrophe than others.

Since the three countries responding the worst to the Covid pandemic have been democracies with authoritarian leaders—or in America’s case, a wannabe authoritarian leader—mismanagement may explain more than culture. (The other two countries are Russia and Brazil.) Nevertheless, let’s try applying Le Guin’s theory.

In “Nine Lives,” resource depletion has led to world-wide famines, forcing humankind to mine for uranium on far distant planets. Amongst those sent into the mines include two engineers (a Welshman and an Argentine) and a “tenclone”—which is to say, ten men and women who have all been cloned from scientific genius John Chow. Working as a team, the clones are far more efficient than regular human beings.

The story explains how the Welshman survived the famine:

The United Kingdom had come through the Great Famines well, losing less than half its population: a record achieved by rigorous food control. Black marketeers and hoarders had been executed. Crumbs had been shared. Where in richer lands most had died and a few had thriven, in Britain fewer died and none throve. They all got lean. Their sons were lean, their grandsons lean, small, brittle-boned, easily infected. When civilization became a matter of standing in lines, the British had kept queue, and so had replaced the survival of the fittest with the survival of the fair-minded. Owen Pugh was a scrawny little man. All the same, he was there.

It’s ironic, in light of this observation, that U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson initially opted for a survival of the fittest response to Covid, banking on the country developing herd immunity rather than working to minimize deaths. I believe that, after catching the coronavirus himself, he backed off of this policy.

Europe’s other social democracies have taken the fair-minded approach and watched their Covid rates go steadily down. Brazil, Russia and America, by contrast, have opted for Social Darwinism. Trump’s latest announcement that “we need to live with it” would mean accepting, as inevitable, hundreds of thousands more deaths. (Trump doesn’t mention this consequence of his approach.) As the president sees it, real Americans don’t get sick. In fact, if they make his reelection harder, they’re not real Americans.

Under Trump we’ve gotten the worst of all possible worlds. First we opted for fair-minded (everyone was to settle in place) and then for survival of the fittest (much of America opened up too soon). We squandered the sacrifices under Option A by moving too quickly to Option B.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden—pretty much any semi-competent president—would have done a better job. All would have listened to the science and developed national strategies for providing personal protective equipment, mandating masks and social distancing, and setting up widespread testing and tracing. We therefore can’t entirely blame American culture for its status as the world’s top coronavirus hot spot. Trump and his GOP enablers have a lot to answer for.

Nevertheless, culture enters in, both America’s libertarian streak and its penchant to dream. There are indeed ways in which the American Dream has been predicated on a denial of reality: hopeful immigrants threw themselves into impossible projects and occasionally (but far from always) triumphed. It is our glory and, in this instance, our downfall.

Through the clones, who see themselves as a community rather than as individuals, we may get insight into communitarian East Asia’s effective response to Covid. People there have no difficulty following mask orders or social distancing orders.

To be sure, the always fair-minded Le Guin also sees problems with communitarian responses.  In the story, a mining accident kills nine of the ten clones. This leads the other two engineers to reflecting upon cloning—or, for our purposes, upon collectivism:

Pugh nodded. “It might be wiser to separate the clones and bring them up with others. But they make such a grand team this way.”

“Do they? I don’t know. If this lot had been ten average inefficient E.T. engineers, would they all have got killed? What if, when the quake came and things started caving in, what if all those kids ran the same way, farther into the mine, maybe, to save the one who was farthest in? Even Kaph [the one survivor] was outside and went in. . . . It’s hypothetical. But I keep thinking, out of ten ordinary confused guys, more might have got out.”

In other words, individualism has its advantages. Then again, those who regard wearing masks as a dictatorial imposition imperil us all.

In “Nine Lives,” the surviving clone must learn to form a new kind of community. In this way, he provides a good lesson for America today that goes beyond culture: while we feel far more comfortable within our own tribes, we must learn to work with people unlike us if we are to survive and flourish. America’s culture of “e pluribus unum”—out of many, one—has never been an instinctive part of who we are but it is foundational to our hopes as a nation.

Kaph begins exploring this other way of being once he learns that a “twelveclone” will be showing up—which is to say, a self-sufficient group that will not include him as a member. Is joining the Welshman and the Argentine an option?

“Do you love Martin?”

Pugh looked up with angry eyes: “Martin is my friend. We’ve worked together, he’s a good man.” He stopped. After a while he said, “Yes, I love him. Why did you ask that?”

Kaph said nothing, but he looked at the other man. His face was changed, as if he were glimpsing something he had not seen before; his voice too was changed. “How can you . . . How do you . . .

But Pugh could not tell him. “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s practice, partly. I don’t know. We’re each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”

By the end of the story, Owen invites Kaph to join a new kind of community:

Kaph sat in the small yellow aura of the lamp seeming to look past it at what he feared: the new clone, the multiple self of which he was not part. A lost piece of a broken set, a fragment, inexpert at solitude, not knowing even how you go about giving love to another individual, now he must face the absolute, closed self-sufficiency of the clone of twelve; that was a lot to ask of the poor fellow, to be sure. Pugh put a hand on his shoulder in passing. “The chief won’t ask you to stay here with a clone. You can go home. Or since you’re Far Out maybe you’ll come on farther out with us. We could use you. No hurry deciding. You’ll make out all right.”

Pugh’s quiet voice trailed off. He stood unbuttoning his coat, stooped a little with fatigue. Kaph looked at him and saw the thing he had never seen before, saw him: Owen Pugh, the other, the stranger who held his hand out in the dark.

Regardless of our culture, we’re all in the dark during this pandemic. What can we do about it other than hold our hands to strangers?

Metaphorically, of course.

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