Ursula K. Le Guin, award-winning and bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy, died Monday at the age of 88. LeGuin is best known for The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and her EarthSea Cycle, beginning with A Wizard of EarthSea, but she also wrote short stories, poetry, children’s books (the charming Catwings series), essays, and several books on writing. Her work won praise from fellow writers, and she won multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. Her books were embraced by a literary and academic establishment that usually snubs SFF; The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed in particular were, and are, often taught in high school and college, particularly in gender and women’s studies courses. In 2014, the National Book Awards recognized her with its lifetime achievement award. Her career spanned most of her life; she submitted her first short story at age 11, and was still writing in her 80s.
For me, as I suspect for many of my cohort growing up in the 1970s, the EarthSea cycle was my first introduction to mature fantasy after Tolkien.* I had read the Narnia and Prydain books in elementary school, but A Wizard of EarthSea challenged me as a reader in ways those books had not. The richness and craftsmanship of her writing and the breadth of her ideas enthralled me, and I read the trilogy (back then, the series was just a trilogy) several times over… despite the dearth of major female characters. Much later, when my own daughter was in grade school, we discovered the charming Catwings series. Yet for some inexplicable reason, I have never read any of her other books… though I plan to rectify that.
Le Guin not only wrote superb fantasy (and science fiction), she stood up for the genre even as the literary world looked down on it (though never on her):
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Wood (1980). “The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction”, p.44, Ultramarine Publishing
In an interview with NPR, Mary Robinette Kowal, author of the Glamourist Histories, said of Le Guin, “She was one of the first really big voices in science fiction and fantasy who was a woman,” Kowal added. “And I think she did a lot for science fiction and fantasy — not just for women and women’s roles because of her feminism but also legitimizing us as an art form. There are a lot of people who will read an Ursula Le Guin book and go, ‘Well, this isn’t science fiction, it’s literature.‘ But of course, it is science fiction. A lot of times, she can be a gateway drug for people.”
Other writers took to Twitter to express their sorrow at Le Guin’s passing. Ellen Kushner invoked Auden’s poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Neil Gaiman wrote, “Her words are always with us. Some of them are written on my soul. I miss her as a glorious funny prickly person, & I miss her as the deepest and smartest of the writers, too.”
As a writer, as a feminist, as a quiet revolutionary, Le Guin challenged our thinking about gender and sexuality (The Left Hand of Darkness), nature vs. nurture and utopianism (The Dispossessed), capitalism and colonialism (The Word for World is Forest), and other fundamental ideas of Western culture. She spoke out against sexism and misogyny in the SFF genre, and once refused to blurb an all-male SFF anthology, saying, “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.” In the broader literary world, Le Guin championed the role of writers and artists in widening our vision and bringing about change. In her 2014 National Book Awards speech, she said,
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.
Ursula K. Le Guin, 2014 National Book Awards acceptance speech
Le Guin came from an impressive family. Her father was an notable scholar and teacher of anthropology at UC Berkeley, whose work with Ishi, “the last wild Indian in North America,” was documented in Ishi in Two Worlds, a biography written by his wife Theodora, Ursula’s mother. A number of her other close relatives went on to become professors and/or writers. She was no mean scholar herself. Her understanding of literary structure and mastery of language were well-grounded; after graduating from Radcliffe College, she received her master’s degree in medieval and Renaissance literature. (quote from The Guardian obituary)
A documentary on Le Guin is in the works, though there is currently no release date, according to the filmmaker on Le Guin’s website. I will be eager to see it when it releases and learn more about this complex and talented woman, who stands with the “greats” of SFF.
Le Guin is eminently quotable, but this quote from The Dispossessed seems to me a fitting epitaph:
“If you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… but close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”
Requiescat in pace.
*Yes, I know it’s technically YA, but it has more depth, complexity, and moral ambiguity than much of the fantasy marketed as YA at the time of its publication. As the NYT says in their obituary of Le Guin, the Earthsea books don’t talk down to their audience.