“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. . .” (Ursula K Le Guin)
One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Ursula Le Guin wrote 23 novels, 12 volumes of short stories, five collections of essays, 11 volumes of poetry, 13 children’s books and four works of translation. She won numerous awards and honors, including multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, the National Book Award, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2016 she joined the short list of authors to be published in their lifetimes by the Library of America.
At Luna, her fiction can be found on our science fiction shelves. She may not have been too thrilled with this, given her resistance to genre labels applied to her work, which can sometimes be reductive. She may have written about imaginary worlds, but that is not all she wrote. And for many readers, the worlds she imagined and the people in them provided more insight into the human condition than novels that have realism at their core.
Born Ursula Kroeger in 1929, into a family of academics - her father was an anthropologist and her mother an author – Le Guin went on to study at Radcliffe and Columbia, and at 22, received an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature.
When she began writing in the early 1960s, science fiction was largely hard science fiction, grounded in physics and chemistry and written mostly by white male writers, ostensibly for white male readers. Racial and gender diversity were mostly absent.
For this reason, her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness was genre-defying when it came out. In this thought experiment of a novel, Le Guin wrote about a planet where the human inhabitants have no fixed gender but have the potential to become either, only once each month, reverting to a neutral state thereafter. "The king was pregnant," the book tells us early on. The visitor/protagonist from Earth has much to learn about this world, and so do we as readers, with our own fixed views upended. As a bonus we get to do this through a thrilling adventure with beautiful prose. Several writers including Zadie Smith and Neil Gaiman have cited The Left Hand of Darkness as a significant influence.
In an interview in 2016, Le Guin said, “People do seem to be people wherever they are, whatever they look like. In The Left Hand of Darkness, I kind of tried to experiment to see if you took gender away from people for most of the month, would they still be human? And yeah, they did — they do.”
Le Guin’s approach to her writing was sociological and anthropological. She was curious about how societies functioned and explored human complexity and psychology in her novels. Throughout her writing life, she chafed at being labeled a “science fiction writer”. She felt that it kept readers who thought they “didn’t read sci-fi” away, and also that it implied that her work was somehow not “literary”, which could not be further from the truth, given her characters and the quality of her prose.
“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.” (In an interview to The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 221)
In the decades that followed the Left Hand of Darkness, she continued to use speculative fiction to explore social, political, ethical and metaphysical questions, and published some of her best work. The following stand out:
The Earthsea series (1968-2001): Generally acknowledged now as one of the great works of 20th century fantasy, this collection of novels and short stories is set in a fictional world of magic and wizardry and is a nuanced exploration of the power of language and the nature of magic.
The first novel in the series, published in 1968, features a young wizard named Ged (or Sparrowhawk), who is training as a wizard on the island of Roke. While at the school, Ged, in a reckless act brought on by pride, unintentionally releases a terrible, dark force into the world. A force that is now connected to him. Once his training is complete, Ged realizes that he will never be free unless he faces this force that threatens the world of Earthsea and sets out on a quest.
This bildungsroman carries a few Taoist themes (Le Guin was deeply interested in Taoism) - a fundamental balance that wizards are supposed to maintain in the universe. And the idea that language and names have the power to affect the material world and alter this balance.
Again, Le Guin subverted the sci-fi/fantasy norms of her time by making her protagonist a boy of colour. This is never dwelt on, it is simply a fact you notice some way through the book.
Le Guin was not always in control of the art on her book covers and it annoyed her that in many editions, the cover showed bleached “lily white” worlds and wizards rather than the characters she had created. This changed in later years as the books gained in popularity. The recently issued Complete Earthsea Collection with illustrations by Chris Vess was created in collaboration with Le Guin, and is a thing of beauty.
The subsequent novels in the series (Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind) follow different characters but all take place in the same fictional world of Earthsea. Le Guin wrote the first three books in reasonably quick succession between 1968 and 1972. But when she came back to this world in 1990, she wondered why she, as a woman, was writing largely about what men do. She changed her lens in the later stories to include more female protagonists, to write about what men and women do.
The Dispossessed (1974): This novel explores themes of capitalism, anarchism, revolution, and the struggle for social justice and is considered a seminal work of anarchist literature.
It tells the story of two planets, Urras and Anarres, twin worlds in the same solar system. Urras is a rich and capitalist planet, while Anarres is a poor and anarchist planet. Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, is working on a theory that could revolutionize interstellar communication. Frustrated by the isolationist policies and bureaucracy on Anarres, he decides to travel to Urras hoping to find collaborators who will help him develop his theory. To visit Urras - to learn, to teach, to share - involves sacrifice and risk, which Shevek willingly accepts. But his gift is soon seen as a threat, and in the profound conflict that ensues, he must re-examine his beliefs even as he inspires change.
The Word for World Is Forest (1976): Winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
This novel was in some ways Le Guin's response and resistance to the Vietnam war that she staunchly opposed.
When the Athsheans, inhabitants of a peaceful world, are enslaved by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters. Desperation causes them to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their own strictures against violence, thus endangering the foundations of their society. This narrative has the violent Captain Davidson clash with the anthropologist Raj Lyubov, who is content to be in the world of the Athsheans, trying to understand it without altering it or forcing it to bend to his will.
And finally, a word about her non-fiction. Over the course of her extraordinary career, Le Guin wrote several essays on themes that mattered most to her - anthropology, environmentalism, feminism, social justice and literary criticism. She even reassessed her own work over time, responding thoughtfully to criticism. 'Dreams Must Explain Themselves' (selected non-fiction) and 'Words Are My Matter' (a collection of her talks, essays, introductions to beloved books, and book reviews), are essential reading.
Ursula Le Guin passed away in 2018 at the age of 89. Her first and only authorized biography is scheduled to come out in 2026, written by Julie Philips.
In her acceptance speech when receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Le Guin spoke about responsible book publishing and authorship, how "books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art"... To read/watch this speech please click here.
Sources for this post include:
2. Paris Review Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin - conducted by David Naimon in 2013
5. The New Yorker: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221
Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ursula_Le_Guin_