Ursula K. Le Guin’s Nine Lives: A Reflection On Life’s Purpose

Have you ever asked students what makes short sci fi/fantasy stories so exciting to read. Ursula K. Le Guin published “Nine Lives”, her novelette in Playboy Magazine in 1968. Playboy wanted to publish it under U. K. Le Guin, so male readers wouldn’t be nervous. The piece received national attention when President Lyndon B. Johnson praised it publicly”(Cove).

Le Guin’s setting was her most important element, however, as it affected the plot of the story and the characters. It gave the story a mood and an idea for what role the characters would have. It is this that makes the reader want to read more to discover what happened next. Setting is important when you are deciding how to begin a short story. Nine Lives is set on a planet called Libra. It focuses on two workers who are responsible for finding mining sites.

Martin and Pugh frequently report to Earth. Earth is nearly destroyed due to wars and famine. Martin and Pugh get help from 10 clones who are collectively known as John Chow. They can be distinguished by their middle initials. The story depicts both the symbiotic relationship between the clones and the development of the clones. The story depicts the symbiotic relationship between the clones and the process of developing them. It is important to include a theme or tone in any story without having the full base. This will give readers a sense of why they should read this particular story. (Whitney)

The theme of the story is another way to show how setting is important. Le Guin demonstrates that humans and the clones are capable of coexisting and can even be in agreement with each other. As the new shipment arrives, the reader is reminded of the fact that clones can be replaced. (Cove). The story revolves around themes such as individualism and importance of social connections. This tale can be seen as both a critique and defense of the individualist idea. Martin and Pugh make a good team but their combined effectiveness is shown at first to be lower than the collective of clones. Martin and Pugh believe that the clones are in a state of perfect harmony.

The social values of the time seem to have influenced their idea of individuality over collectivism. Martin and Pugh’s discussions of Earth events that led to cloning are a good example of this. Martin and Pugh make it clear that they place more value on the collective than the individual in their explanations of what led them to launch the cloning programme. Cloned animals are seen as a valuable tool to achieve a goal. The clones are valued as workers who contribute to the society. The clones are united, which is a positive thing. However, this is also a problem (Cove).

Le Guin describes the deaths of the Earthlings during wars and famines in a detached manner. This story is written in a way that reflects how one of the clones, “Kaph”, felt when the other nine died. It evokes feelings such as sadness, fear, depression and loneliness. Martin and Pugh start to become concerned after the earthquake and when they don’t hear from their clones for several hours. They discover a male and female clone both dead.

The clone who is left dies nine separate times once they get back to the base. They seem to be recreating the deaths of all their companions. John K. Chow – a live clone – is depressed after being left alone for the first ever time. The connection of the clones leads to the fear that they will be separated, which causes them to make illogical decision when the accident occurs.

Nine of the 10 clones die in the mine of hazardous wreckage because they are afraid of being singular. It is only when the clone left has to live alone from the rest of his siblings that the full extent of their collectivism is exposed. Kaph’s instabilities and depression after the accident show, in part that, while collectivism can be useful, it is also important that people are able to live as individuals, so that they do not have to rely on others to understand their place in society. (Whitney). Setting is important when criticizing a story. Without it, readers will have no idea what the character is going through.

Le Guin refers to this in the story. Nobody teases him if he makes a wrong. A joke will make nine people laugh. When someone is crying, there’s always a group of people who can relate. The people in this little group can function socially, without having to leave their circle. (Mayden). This independence is exactly what makes relationships of care and collaboration more meaningful. It is evident in the relationship between Martin Pugh at the end, when Pugh sacrifices his life for Martin. This was not done out of fear, but rather because he truly cared, loved, and worried about Martin.


  • stanleybyrne

    Stanley Byrne is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher. He has degrees in education and political science from the University of Notre Dame and has worked in various teaching and research positions since he graduated in 2014. He is the author of a number of educational blog posts and has written for Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Salon.