Here I might just quote Le Guin’s own introduction to the story:
The popular notion of science fiction, I guess, is of a story that takes some possible or impossible technological gimmick-of-the-future – Soylent Green, the time machine, the submarine – and makes hay out of it. There certainly are science fiction stories which do just that, but to define science fiction by them is a bit like defining the United States as Kansas.
Writing “The Stars Below,” I thought I knew what I was doing. As in the early story “The Masters,” I was telling a story not about a gimmick or device or hypothesis, but about science itself – the idea of science. And about what happens to the idea of science when it meets utterly opposed and powerful ideas, embodied in government, as when seventeenth-century astronomy ran up against the Pope, or genetics in the 1930s ran up against Stalin. But all this was cast as a psychomyth, a story outside real time, past or future, in part to generalize it, and in part because I was also using science as a synonym for art. What happens to the creative mind when it is driven underground?
This is a story that sits at the borderland of historical and the mythological, and, clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
First published in Orbit 12, 1973. Collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975, more recently Gollancz, 2015. Read online at Lightspeed here