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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 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.

5 pages, ebook

First published January 1, 1986

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About the author

Ursula K. Le Guin

790 books23.3k followers
Ursula K. Le Guin published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. She lived in Portland, Oregon.

She was known for her treatment of gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matter of Seggri), political systems (The Telling, The Dispossessed) and difference/otherness in any other form. Her interest in non-Western philosophies was reflected in works such as "Solitude" and The Telling but even more interesting are her imagined societies, often mixing traits extracted from her profound knowledge of anthropology acquired from growing up with her father, the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. The Hainish Cycle reflects the anthropologist's experience of immersing themselves in new strange cultures since most of their main characters and narrators (Le Guin favoured the first-person narration) are envoys from a humanitarian organization, the Ekumen, sent to investigate or ally themselves with the people of a different world and learn their ways.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 129 reviews
Profile Image for Cally Mac.
237 reviews68 followers
February 24, 2020
Ursula K Le Guin - makes you wonder why there are any other writers at all? Should they all just go home?,
Profile Image for Angela Natividad.
512 reviews14 followers
April 17, 2020
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?
Profile Image for Anna Gibson.
60 reviews5 followers
April 16, 2021
short, sweet and like a firm hug in a kitchen with a whistling kettle
Profile Image for Boy Blue.
428 reviews65 followers
January 16, 2021
"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."
Profile Image for Matilda Burn.
41 reviews2 followers
April 1, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Srishti Jha.
64 reviews39 followers
November 19, 2022
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
Profile Image for fiorella.
13 reviews
November 18, 2021
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 :')
Profile Image for tara.
191 reviews114 followers
September 26, 2022
"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."

loved this so much. (
Profile Image for M..
228 reviews6 followers
November 14, 2022
Bloomin' Readathon, ladybug space: a book with a simple cover but you know its pages will destroy you

I first read this essay a couple of years ago, one night while scrolling Tumblr. In the moment, it was a truly perspective-changing, earth-shattering experience. I felt my view of the world and of stories change completely in the course of a few pages. So of course I thought of finally reading this printed version for the readathon.

It’s true that it didn’t hit me as much this second time, but it doesn’t really matter to me: just to keep alive the ideas Le Guin displays here is enough. I would recommend anyone to at least find it online and reading it: if you like History, or Stories, this is for you. It’s the only Le Guin I’ve read and needless to say I’m beyond excited to read any of her novels as soon as I can.
Profile Image for Ramona Cantaragiu.
764 reviews15 followers
February 20, 2023
Short, but extremely poignant and pregnant with meaning and opportunities for writing different types of novels and experimenting to a larger extent with this genre. I should read more of Le Guin on writing.
Profile Image for Christina Dongowski.
161 reviews54 followers
June 19, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Richard R.
38 reviews98 followers
December 30, 2022
Not entirely sure I find all of the anthropological context convincing, but the idea of the novel as a shapeless container of many things that resists being bent into a single shape is a resonant one. Not that different to how someone like Mikhail Bakhtin saw the novel, to take one example.
293 reviews1 follower
October 13, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Leanne.
580 reviews46 followers
November 2, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Nathan.
93 reviews
April 2, 2022
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.
Profile Image for Laura Dzubay.
Author 2 books21 followers
November 3, 2022
Fantastic! I wish I had read this before grad school so I could have taught it in every single one of my writing classes. This essay makes me want to teach more classes just so that I can talk about it with students. (PS if any of my friends see this, you too should read it and I would love to also talk about it with you lol)
Profile Image for sanaz.
151 reviews144 followers
April 14, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Kasia.
137 reviews2 followers
March 8, 2021
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 [🧺🧺🧺🧺🧺]
Profile Image for Adam  McPhee.
1,238 reviews168 followers
October 28, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Ks..
22 reviews8 followers
March 31, 2020
Nothing more important and more concise has ever been written.
Profile Image for sara.
721 reviews158 followers
January 31, 2021
OKay, I see how it is, I'm giving my entire heart to Ursula K. Le Guin, understood.
Profile Image for Adam Nissen Feldt.
41 reviews5 followers
October 3, 2021
Elegant and sincere feminist essay that champions pluralism and the novel over heroes and epics.
Profile Image for Ⓐnna.
27 reviews5 followers
November 17, 2022
okay I love her. Need to read more of Le Guin's stuffff!!

"The society, the civilization they were talking about, these theoreticians, was evidently theirs; they owned it, they liked it; they were human, fully human, bashing, sticking, thrusting, killing. 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."

"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."

"That is why I like novels: instead of heroes they have people in them."
Profile Image for Lieke.
12 reviews
February 16, 2023
"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."

"Finally, it's clear that the Hero does not look well in his 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."

"If science fiction is the mythology of modern technology, then its myth is tragic. 'Technology', or 'modern science' (using the words as they are usually used, in an unexamined shorthand standing for the 'hard' sciences and high technology founded upon continuous growth), is a heroic undertaking, Herculean, Promethean, conceived as triumph, hence ultimately as tragedy. The fiction embodying this myth will be, and has been, triumphant (Man conquers earth, space, aliens, death, the future, etc.) and tragic (apocalypse, holocaust, then or now)."
Profile Image for Hanifa Yasmeen.
67 reviews2 followers
December 9, 2020
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.
75 reviews
December 31, 2022
Might be the shortest thing I've read that goodreads considers a "book", but it contains the seeds of a whole new way of writing. Drawing upon anthropological ideas of the creation of stories and tools, she proposes the bag/container rather than the spear/sword as a narrative superstructure. Rather than heroes, she proposes people and things - all brought along together.
(Literally takes 5 min to read so just do it)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 129 reviews

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