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The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

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In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, visionary author Ursula K. Le Guin retells the story of human origin by redefining technology as a cultural carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination. Hacking the linear, progressive mode of the Techno-Heroic, the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution proposes: 'before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brin In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, visionary author Ursula K. Le Guin retells the story of human origin by redefining technology as a cultural carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination. Hacking the linear, progressive mode of the Techno-Heroic, the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution proposes: 'before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.' Prior to the preeminence of sticks, swords and the Hero's long, hard, killing tools, our ancestors' greatest invention was the container: the basket of wild oats, the medicine bundle, the net made of your own hair, the home, the shrine, the place that contains whatever is sacred. The recipient, the holder, the story. The bag of stars. This influential essay opens a portal to terra ignota: unknown lands where the possibilities of human experience and knowledge can be discovered anew. With a new introduction by Donna Haraway, the eminent cyberfeminist, author of the revolutionary A Cyborg Manifesto and most recently, Staying with the Trouble and Manifestly Haraway. With images by Lee Bul, a leading South Korean feminist artist who had a retrospective at London's Hayward Gallery in 2018.


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In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, visionary author Ursula K. Le Guin retells the story of human origin by redefining technology as a cultural carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination. Hacking the linear, progressive mode of the Techno-Heroic, the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution proposes: 'before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brin In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, visionary author Ursula K. Le Guin retells the story of human origin by redefining technology as a cultural carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination. Hacking the linear, progressive mode of the Techno-Heroic, the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution proposes: 'before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.' Prior to the preeminence of sticks, swords and the Hero's long, hard, killing tools, our ancestors' greatest invention was the container: the basket of wild oats, the medicine bundle, the net made of your own hair, the home, the shrine, the place that contains whatever is sacred. The recipient, the holder, the story. The bag of stars. This influential essay opens a portal to terra ignota: unknown lands where the possibilities of human experience and knowledge can be discovered anew. With a new introduction by Donna Haraway, the eminent cyberfeminist, author of the revolutionary A Cyborg Manifesto and most recently, Staying with the Trouble and Manifestly Haraway. With images by Lee Bul, a leading South Korean feminist artist who had a retrospective at London's Hayward Gallery in 2018.

30 review for The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Callum McAllister

    Ursula K Le Guin - makes you wonder why there are any other writers at all? Should they all just go home?,

  2. 4 out of 5

    Angela Natividad

    It never occurred to me to think that the so-called Hero's Journey, with its Conflict and clear Villain, is just one more vestige of that very old story our culture decided it prefers most: Early man using a bone to kill, then raising it in adrenaline-spiked ecstasy; the bone becoming a rocket; and close-up to the baby, a boy of course, born in a Space now penetrated, colonised, dead to all but our purposes, like everything else. In that conception of reality, the Weapon is always our first cult It never occurred to me to think that the so-called Hero's Journey, with its Conflict and clear Villain, is just one more vestige of that very old story our culture decided it prefers most: Early man using a bone to kill, then raising it in adrenaline-spiked ecstasy; the bone becoming a rocket; and close-up to the baby, a boy of course, born in a Space now penetrated, colonised, dead to all but our purposes, like everything else. In that conception of reality, the Weapon is always our first cultural tool—the force that imposes to assert dominance. The carrier bag theory of evolution, if I understand it (and I certainly don't well, not yet), posits that the first cultural tool was actually some kind of sack or sling—a vessel. What good does it do to dig up spuds if you can't contain the rest to take home? Ursula Le Guin doesn't much seem to care which tool came first, but it's satisfying enough to imagine that, way back in the time of Firsts, there was the tool that forces energy outward and the one that brings energy home, that contains it so that we may feed ourselves and others. How does that perspective change stories, and the entire genre of science fiction?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Matilda Burn

    Le Guin never fails in writing stories or essays that contain ideas that slap you round the face in the calmest way possibly. She is just the most amazingly thoughtful, grounded sci-fi writer. This little essay just details how much our notions of "heroics" or "heroes" are frankly crap and calls for a rethink of our storytelling priorities. Le Guin never fails in writing stories or essays that contain ideas that slap you round the face in the calmest way possibly. She is just the most amazingly thoughtful, grounded sci-fi writer. This little essay just details how much our notions of "heroics" or "heroes" are frankly crap and calls for a rethink of our storytelling priorities.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Boy Blue

    "It’s unfamiliar, it doesn’t come easily, thoughtlessly, to the lips as the killer story does; but still, 'untold' was an exaggeration. People have been telling the life story for ages, in all sorts of words and ways. Myths of creation and transformation, trickster stories, folktales, jokes, novels...." "The novel is a fundamentally unheroic kind of story. Of course the Hero has frequently taken it over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it "It’s unfamiliar, it doesn’t come easily, thoughtlessly, to the lips as the killer story does; but still, 'untold' was an exaggeration. People have been telling the life story for ages, in all sorts of words and ways. Myths of creation and transformation, trickster stories, folktales, jokes, novels...." "The novel is a fundamentally unheroic kind of story. Of course the Hero has frequently taken it over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it while making stern decrees and laws to control his uncontrollable impulse to kill it." "So, when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse’s skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand. I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible. Who ever said writing a novel was easy?" "Finally, it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ana-Maria Deliu

    One of the best essays I read. I keep coming back to it for its concentrated speculative power that can go in so many directions. Lovely foundation to think and read with.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Srishti Jha

    I came here after reading this one quote below and I am still trying to process the essay. Authors really give us strange, unusual perspectives which once we read seem so obvious. This essay is the kind that needs to be read again and again and would probably keep adding meaning to itself and for me as time passes. The quote: If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it's useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven o I came here after reading this one quote below and I am still trying to process the essay. Authors really give us strange, unusual perspectives which once we read seem so obvious. This essay is the kind that needs to be read again and again and would probably keep adding meaning to itself and for me as time passes. The quote: If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it's useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again-if to do that is human, if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time

  7. 5 out of 5

    fiorella

    oh wow wow this was so good, I've never read any of le guin's work and I've been meaning to get into it so I've been collecting recs from friends to see where I should start. I heard someone saying this essay was sort of a nice introduction to how she approaches writing so I decided this would be the first thing I'd check out and wow... yes ... very excited to actually check out her novels :') oh wow wow this was so good, I've never read any of le guin's work and I've been meaning to get into it so I've been collecting recs from friends to see where I should start. I heard someone saying this essay was sort of a nice introduction to how she approaches writing so I decided this would be the first thing I'd check out and wow... yes ... very excited to actually check out her novels :')

  8. 5 out of 5

    Anna Gibson

    short, sweet and like a firm hug in a kitchen with a whistling kettle

  9. 4 out of 5

    Angy

    i love her so much

  10. 5 out of 5

    Oscar Cremmen

    Ambient 1: Music for Airports

  11. 5 out of 5

    Leanne

    Thank you so much, my friend Frederik, for telling me about this! Ursula Le Guin is such a genius... many years ago, I heard a similar story from a Greek archaeologist: that the most significant development in past times was not weapons or tools--but vessels. How else to hold things, cook thing, contain things, save things? He told me that it extended human life by ten years. This is something that le Guin heard and she then discussed the way we can write different stories that go beyond the "he Thank you so much, my friend Frederik, for telling me about this! Ursula Le Guin is such a genius... many years ago, I heard a similar story from a Greek archaeologist: that the most significant development in past times was not weapons or tools--but vessels. How else to hold things, cook thing, contain things, save things? He told me that it extended human life by ten years. This is something that le Guin heard and she then discussed the way we can write different stories that go beyond the "hero's journey." Seriously, how many hero's journeys can we go on? You know... in writing class they say, your hero must want or need something, then start throwing rocks at your hero until he gets what he wants or he doesn't... okay.... been there, done that. Le Guin is suggesting stories as containers. This is actually kind of revolutionary because she is resisting the “linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic” in comparison with the always-present “life story” that persists in “myths of creation and transformation, trickster stories, folktales, jokes, novels.” The truer story, she argues, can be represented better as a carrier bag, an ongoing gathering-up and letting-go, rather than the classic “man vs. x” narrative scaffold. Okay, I said she is revolutionary--but in fact, as another reviewer mentioned above, she is actually radicalizing the genre by saying that stories-- and science fiction-- can be progressive in ways that are giving, nurturing and open-hearted. That domination should not be the goal, but the encompassing of all ideas, views and differences which can then be transformed into real, and realistic, future change. This version was so great because it had an introduction by the GREAT Donna Haraway.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    Le Guin writes so lightly and frivolously makes offhand insights that can leave you deep in thought for so long. This is a really fascinating essay which sums up the way Le Guin writes and I think in many ways captures my distrust of modern prose which is that; the hero is not the grounding structure of the story, the story itself as a container is the structure. To write solely about one person is to write an uninteresting world in which everything is instrumental to the hero, and the intrinsic Le Guin writes so lightly and frivolously makes offhand insights that can leave you deep in thought for so long. This is a really fascinating essay which sums up the way Le Guin writes and I think in many ways captures my distrust of modern prose which is that; the hero is not the grounding structure of the story, the story itself as a container is the structure. To write solely about one person is to write an uninteresting world in which everything is instrumental to the hero, and the intrinsic value of things is lost somewhere in the process. The introduction by Donna Haraway was quite terribly written and not altogether insightful in any way.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Christina Dongowski

    Well, Le Guins essay is one of the foundational texts of a (science) fiction of entanglement, so it’s especially illuminating that this beautiful edition comes with a foreword by Donna Haraway besides having eerily entangled drawings by Lee Bul. It’s really a lovely little book, Le Guins Essay should really be required reading for everyone writing and reading fiction.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

    "I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us." Le Guin is a constant source of extremely relevant and astute ideas, that are always conveyed in the most genuine of ways. "I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us." Le Guin is a constant source of extremely relevant and astute ideas, that are always conveyed in the most genuine of ways.

  15. 5 out of 5

    sanaz

    I have nothing but utmost respect for Le Guin. She has taught me so many things that have shaped my life as a woman. When I was younger I didn't quite realize this fact but I am happy that now I see how it works. How every word of wisdom (every carrier bag theory of her) begins to shape me. I have nothing but utmost respect for Le Guin. She has taught me so many things that have shaped my life as a woman. When I was younger I didn't quite realize this fact but I am happy that now I see how it works. How every word of wisdom (every carrier bag theory of her) begins to shape me.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kasia

    Wonderful short essay about containers-vessels-bags-nets-baskets and storytelling. How the stories we use to tell stories affects our response to them. Really easy to read - and lots of content to think about [🧺🧺🧺🧺🧺]

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ks.

    Nothing more important and more concise has ever been written.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Adam Nissen Feldt

    Elegant and sincere feminist essay that champions pluralism and the novel over heroes and epics.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tom Baker

    A superb and characteristically thoughtful refutation of the great man theory of history and the narrative forms which have emerged from it. Le Guin the GOAT lays out an alternate formula for writing fiction (providing an ersatz analysis of her own work in the proces) and, by extension, understanding humanity: one which rhymes with Kropotkin's own rejection of violent social Darwinism, insisting instead on the collaborative and participatory as our natural modes. Preceded in this edition by two A superb and characteristically thoughtful refutation of the great man theory of history and the narrative forms which have emerged from it. Le Guin the GOAT lays out an alternate formula for writing fiction (providing an ersatz analysis of her own work in the proces) and, by extension, understanding humanity: one which rhymes with Kropotkin's own rejection of violent social Darwinism, insisting instead on the collaborative and participatory as our natural modes. Preceded in this edition by two naff prefaces you should skip!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Hanifa Yasmeen

    I'm absolutely fascinated with the way Ursula Le Guin writes and her perspective on fiction. This shift in perspective about human society and the whole structure of 'the hero's journey' by wanting to turn the narrative away from violence, to not make violent weapons the defining mark of humanity but tools to carry and store as the first human need is an interesting and necessary take. This is such a short but essential read. I'm absolutely fascinated with the way Ursula Le Guin writes and her perspective on fiction. This shift in perspective about human society and the whole structure of 'the hero's journey' by wanting to turn the narrative away from violence, to not make violent weapons the defining mark of humanity but tools to carry and store as the first human need is an interesting and necessary take. This is such a short but essential read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    An amazing little essay with a perspective shattering core. Le Guin is incredible at switching the looking glass on you, and makes you re-evaluate humanity's entire nature and your own personal philosophies and internal narratives simply by pointing out our first true invention. An amazing little essay with a perspective shattering core. Le Guin is incredible at switching the looking glass on you, and makes you re-evaluate humanity's entire nature and your own personal philosophies and internal narratives simply by pointing out our first true invention.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    She has a point, stories should have something of the stuff of life about them. But I don't think stories revolving around heroes or violence (or even just using violence to generate cheap heat) are necessarily problematic. We need new stories, it doesn't make the old stories bad. I dunno. She has a point, stories should have something of the stuff of life about them. But I don't think stories revolving around heroes or violence (or even just using violence to generate cheap heat) are necessarily problematic. We need new stories, it doesn't make the old stories bad. I dunno.

  23. 5 out of 5

    sara

    OKay, I see how it is, I'm giving my entire heart to Ursula K. Le Guin, understood. OKay, I see how it is, I'm giving my entire heart to Ursula K. Le Guin, understood.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Justin Martin

    A far more interesting frame to start conversations about storytelling, universalism, pacing, focus, and plot than we usually get -- largely because it begins with some actual curiousity.

  25. 4 out of 5

    fig

    feeling so many things after reading this :'''''0 feeling so many things after reading this :'''''0

  26. 5 out of 5

    zeta

    she's right about everything, as always she's right about everything, as always

  27. 5 out of 5

    Anton Stubbe Teglbjærg

    A refreshing little essay, calling for a new way of understanding stories, and an eco-feminist way of understanding human history, as being driven by the carrier bag, not the spear.

  28. 5 out of 5

    L.

    I've never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before, maybe I would have appreciated my edition by Terra incognita more if I had, but honestly I'm not even sure. I liked the actual central essay in this book, but the "introduction" (if it can be called that, because there really wasn't anything introductory about it) was pretty much unintelligible to me and considering how it was only like 5 pages I would have appreciated just not having it in the book at all... The second essay by Donna Haraway I've never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before, maybe I would have appreciated my edition by Terra incognita more if I had, but honestly I'm not even sure. I liked the actual central essay in this book, but the "introduction" (if it can be called that, because there really wasn't anything introductory about it) was pretty much unintelligible to me and considering how it was only like 5 pages I would have appreciated just not having it in the book at all... The second essay by Donna Haraway (who possibly also wrote the introduction? I'm not sure, the two pieces felt very different) was great though, I liked her connection of her own personal carrying bags from indigenous South American people to fibre craft and the makers behind the fabrics and the political, social, economical, environmental problems they are facing and working against. I would have liked a few more pages of that essay vs. the bizarre introduction. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction was fine, I wish there had been a little bit more to it, but I always think that looking at historical "narratives" can be interesting (not in a revisionist way), and I believe that the arrogance of thinking humans today are at some kind of latest stage of ongoing development and growth is perhaps... exactly what hinders meaningful progress in many areas.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Axica

    My gateway to Ursula Le Guin, this essay will mark start to my fangirling of her non fictional works. "One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd. (I have read a how-to-write manual that said, “A story should be seen as a battle,” and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.) Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may My gateway to Ursula Le Guin, this essay will mark start to my fangirling of her non fictional works. "One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd. (I have read a how-to-write manual that said, “A story should be seen as a battle,” and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.) Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process." I am hooked.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tay

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. The book is tiny, and work itself is very short, less than half of the introduction that precedes it. But I understand why the preface and introduction are so long - they want you to take seriously that which you are about to read, and the potential it has to shift your worldview. In her introduction, Donna Haraway gives illustrative examples why 'the untold other stories' are important and describes how in the Agta society (Philippines), storytellers are the most valuable members of society - a The book is tiny, and work itself is very short, less than half of the introduction that precedes it. But I understand why the preface and introduction are so long - they want you to take seriously that which you are about to read, and the potential it has to shift your worldview. In her introduction, Donna Haraway gives illustrative examples why 'the untold other stories' are important and describes how in the Agta society (Philippines), storytellers are the most valuable members of society - and not for, "the endless domination by the tale of competitive biological reproductive advantage", a story we've heard so much that we've effectively 'become' it and no longer recognize it as a story - but for the ways they increase empathy, welcoming-perspectives, and promote cooperation in human evolution. All this to introduce the main story / storyteller! Finally, we get to Le Guin's theory - which she has expounded and expanded upon a theory by Elizabeth Fisher that the first human cultural device was not a tool but a recipient. "A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container". She goes on to relate the Hero narrative to this tool, and how it has usurped the storytelling landscape to the point that we don't think a story can be a story without a HERO. Meanwhile, while relating this theory, she tells us, almost in the background, an extremely relatable story of woman going about collecting wild oats, carrying her young and making preparations for the future. And where does this woman fit in? How powerful our ways of telling can impact our very own sense of being or belonging in the world. She says, "So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it... Wanting to be human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that's what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all. That's right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero." BUT - the recipient theory offers redemption. "If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it's useful, edible or beautiful into a bag, or a basket.. take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter... if to do that is human, if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time." She goes on to apply this comparison to science fiction as mythology of modern technology. If we use the Hero/Tool narrative, then our stories and future imaginings (via science fiction) will be dramatic and binary, "conceived as triumph, thus ultimately tragedy." However, if instead, we, "redefine technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapons of mass domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field.. and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one." I would love for this analysis to go on, to be applied outside of science fiction and into our daily lives and future non-fiction dreams. But that's kind of the point right? That science fiction is the place where we allow ourselves to consider those things with less rigidity and confines before making them realities. But that the Hero narrative keeps us confined within it. And now suddenly, in writing this, I understand why Haraway invokes the ouroboros in her introduction.

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