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Ursula K. Le Guin

By / January 24, 2018 / no comments

The death has been announced of Ursula K. Le Guin. She was 88.

It is almost impossible to write about Le Guin without making her sound less than she was. She is revered for her wisdom, but that wisdom is revealed in the subtle and complex humanity that pervades her best work, rather than in short quotable lines. She is acclaimed for the quality of her fiction as if that was a given, something unquestioned, without reckoning on the work that was less than stellar, though that is what highlights how hard she worked to produce her very best novels. And she is inevitably referred to as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, even though that fails to encompass the range and ambition of her work.

She was, quite simply, one of the most important writers in the history of late-20th century literature. The way she uses clear, simple language in A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels to convey a world that is morally complex. The way she produces fables like “Sur” or “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (surely one of the outstanding short stories of the last half-century) that continue to have a powerful impact on the reader no matter how many times you read them. The way she embeds challenging social and political messages about gender and equality into dramatic science fiction novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed

Her influence on other writers is immeasureable, there are few genre writers of any note who have emerged since the 1970s that are untouched by her work, and most admit direct inspiration. There are not many writers of science fiction and fantasy that are essential reading, but Ursula K. Le Guin is undoubtedly of that company.

Ursula Le Guin was the daughter of Californian anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, best known for his work with Ishi, said to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe. Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a famous biography of Ishi, Ishi in Two Worlds. The anthropological viewpoint, and the awareness of other ways of living in the world, would be one of the abiding characteristics of her work. She attended the same school as Philip K. Dick, though the two seem to have been unaware of each other at the time.

Some of her earliest published writings were about an imaginary central-European country of Orsinia at a time of romance and revolution. This would later produce a collection of stories and a novel, Malafrena, together collected by the Library of America as The Complete Orsinia. Around this time she also wrote a short story, “The Word of Unbinding”, that was the first part of what would go on to become the Earthsea sequence, young adult novels that have proved to be among the most powerful and influential works of fantasy ever written.

Her first science fiction novel was Rocannon’s World in 1966, which was also part of the Hainish Cycle, a sequence of loosely linked novels and stories set amid a galactic civilization of several worlds jointly known as the Ekumen. There is instantaneous communication among them by way of a device known as the ansible, but no faster than light travel, so connections between worlds are tentative and irregular. The various novels and stories that make up the Hainish Cycle, consisting of the novels Rocannon’s WorldPlanet of ExileCity of IllusionsThe Left Hand of DarknessThe Word for World is ForestThe Dispossessed and The Telling, and the collections Four Ways to Forgiveness and The Birthday of the World, have been collected in two volumes from the Library of America, Hainish Novels and Stories volume 1 and volume 2.

Her other work includes The Lathe of Heaven, which many consider to be her best novel, the massive anthropological novel, Always Coming Home, and the award-winning fantasy, Lavinia.

She was also a very good and very challenging critical writer, producing often controversial reviews almost to the moment of her death. Her best critical writing is to be found in books like The Language of the NightDancing at the Edge of the WorldSteering the Craft and more recently Words are my Matter.

Ursula K. Le Guin won all of the genre’s major awards, usually multiple times. These include the Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, the Hugo Award for Novella for The Word for World is Forest, for Novelette for “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”, and for Short Story for “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; the Nebula Award for Best Novel for The Left Hand of DarknessThe DispossessedTehanu, and Powers, for Novelette for “Solitude”, and for Short Story for “The Day Before the Revolution”; plus a handful of Tiptree Awards, Sturgeon Awards, Locus Awards and a whole host of others.

Ursula K. Le Guin has simply been one of the most important writers of our generation. To mark her passing, go and read her work: you won’t be sorry.

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Paul

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