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Ursula K. Le Guin Wants Everyone to Know the Huge Difference Between 'Alternative Facts' and Fiction

Image: Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Image: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

The word “alternative” appears both in the fun new craze sweeping the government (“alternative facts”) and in a few science fiction staple ideas (“alternate history” and “alternate universe,” for example). Despite that superficial similarity, legendary scifi author Ursula K. Le Guin wants to make sure no one confuses what White House press secretary Sean Spicer does with what she does.


Writing to the Daily Oregonian, Le Guin responded to another letter which stated that “Alternative facts are not new. In fact, they are necessary when creating an alternative universe, a universe where the natural laws we know no longer apply or are inconvenient to the storyteller” and concluded by name-checking Le Guin as a science fiction legend with whom that the new government fit in. It feels like it was meant to be satire, but it was so poorly written that it’s hard to tell.

Le Guin couldn’t let it stand, regardless. She responded:

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.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Northwest Portland

It’s a good line to hold. Now If we could only send this letter to everyone having difficulty figuring out the problem with “alternative facts.”

Katharine is the former managing editor of io9.

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

It’s simple. What LeGuin does is supposed to make you think. What Spicer does is supposed to make you not think.