Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 - 2018)

Remembering the literary icon, who died this week at the age of 88.

“Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls.” - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed         

In an article penned for a 1994 issue of TV Guide, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about the time she met a young woman at a science fiction convention who expressed to her why she loved Star Trek: “A lot of science fiction shows us a future just like now, only worse,” the woman said. “I like The Next Generation because it shows us a future I could live in.” And Le Guin mentioned what she herself loved best about the genre: “it is the way it transforms vision.” Le Guin used LeVar Burton’s Geordi and his visor as an example: “At first, I saw Geordi as a blind guy with a prosthetic device. I don’t know when the transformation happened - when I began to see him, and got uncomfortable when he took his visor off.” She described her discomfort with seeing Geordi in a dream sequence where his eyes were “perfectly normal”: “Who cares about ‘normal,’ when what you care about is Geordi? This is what science fiction does best. It challenges our idea of what we see as like ourselves. It increases our sense of kinship.” And Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing increased our sense of kinship. It unbuilt the walls between people. She recognized that our imagination can create worlds, and it can generate empathy. Le Guin felt that the true power of fantasy, of exploring possible worlds, was to help us question our own strange customs and beliefs, to see other perspectives, and to consider this radical notion: “It doesn’t have to be the way it is.”     

Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in 1929, in Berkeley, California, the daughter of anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and the author Theodora Kroeber. Le Guin grew up creating stories with her one of her brothers about a world of stuffed toys they called the Animal Kingdom, and she spent her summers surrounded by her parents’ friends, which, in the late 1930s, included refugees from around the world as well as American Indians, inspiring her curiosity in perspectives not her own. She attended Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, and New York’s Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in Romance languages in 1952 and earned a Fulbright fellowship.         

When the literary trend was realism in the 1950s, and the world seemed to worship writers like Hemingway and Faulkner, Le Guin began writing a novel about an invented European country called Orsinia, and this imaginary place allowed Le Guin to write about Communism and McCarthyism at a distance, under the guise of fantasy. She told The New Yorker: “I didn’t know who my fellow-writers were. There didn’t seem to be anybody doing what I wanted to do. I’m not competing with all these guys and their empires and territories. I just want to write my stories and dig my own garden.” After a decade of writing and submitting her work, Le Guin’s first short story was published in 1961, and in 1966, at the age of thirty-seven, she published her first novel, Rocannon’s World.         

Though Ursula K. Le Guin disliked the stigma attached to the term “science fiction,” she refused to be pigeonholed; she didn’t consider herself a science-fiction writer exclusively, but a novelist, a short-story writer, and a poet as well. Even when she finally found a home in genre writing in the early 1960s, mainstream science fiction was dominated by “hard sci-fi,” which was rooted in physics, chemistry, astronomy. But Le Guin was interested in the social sciences - she was interested in human beings and what they do. For Le Guin, fantasy was subversive, a challenge to the status quo and the boundaries that divide people. One of Le Guin’s inventions, a fictional device she called the ansible, proved a powerful metaphor: it allows beings to communicate with each other across any distance, even across the universe. The ansible appeared first in The Dispossessed, her novel about an anarchist utopia. Her fourth novel The Left Hand of Darkness felt revolutionary, ahead of its time: published in 1969, it concerned genderless beings who choose a gender once every lunar cycle. But many consider Le Guin’s magnum opus to be the six-volume Earthsea series, which began in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea, the story of a gifted, lonely teenager named Ged studying at a school for wizards, a kind of proto-Hogwarts.         

In a career spanning more than five decades, Le Guin was prolific, and celebrated. She won Nebula and Hugo science fiction and fantasy awards, and she received the Newbery Medal and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. (It is worth noting that Le Guin once turned down a Nebula award in protest of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s treatment of Stanisław Lem after they rescinded his honorary membership.) In 2000, the U.S. Library of Congress declared her a “living legend,” and in 2017, she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Le Guin was a mother of three who lived out her final years with her husband Charles, a professor emeritus of history at Portland State University, and her cat, Pard. Though she’d retired from writing, she still kept a blog, and some of these musings and polemics were collected in the 2017 book No Time to Spare.           

Le Guin was passionate, scrappy, and thoroughly antiestablishment. In the 1960s, she was a self-described “pacifist activist” who marched against the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, she politely declined the offer to write a blurb for an anthology of science-fiction writers that didn’t include any women, explaining, “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.” When a white actor was cast as Ged in the adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin spoke out against it, as she felt she’d explicitly described Ged in her novel as American Indian. (She even wrote an article - A Whitewashed Earthsea - that accused the Sci Fi Channel of ruining her books.) Virginia Woolf inspired her, and so did her mother, who didn’t begin writing until she was in her fifties. Early on in Philip K. Dick’s career, when he wasn’t kept in print or read often, Le Guin defended him. And in recent years, she’d shown support for the Occupy movement, and had spoken out against everything from Hollywood to the commodification of art. She was the harshest critic of capitalism and corporatism, and her personal philosophy was inspired by Taoism, Buddhism, and anarchism.         

Le Guin believed that resistance and change began in art. In her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in 2014,  Le Guin said: “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom - poets, visionaries - realists of a larger reality.”

Her influence on science fiction - and beyond - is astronomical, unquantifiable, and it is an understatement to say that the voice of Ursula K. Le Guin, a voice for the voiceless, will be missed.


(Note: Header photo by Marian Wood Kolisch, used with permission via Flickr)