Recently one of America’s greatest writers died, Ursula K. Le Guin. Note that I said “greatest writers,” not “greatest science fiction writers” or “greatest fantasy writers.” Le Guin won numerous awards during her career, and sold millions of copies. Many of us believe that her books have become part of the canon of American literature. She was both wildly inventive and deeply thoughtful in how she approached her work. You leave her books both entertained and provoked to do some serious thinking of your own.
I’ve always thought the fact Le Guin’s parents were both cultural anthropologists was a significant factor in the imaginative worlds she created in her books. Rather than the showy heroic stories of conflict and triumph we so often see, Le Guin created characters and societies with complexity and ambiguity. (photo left: NerdPatrol, Flickr)
Take for example, her classic The Left Hand of Darkness. This compelling story follows a Terran (earthling) to the planet of Gethen where all the inhabitants are ambisexual most of the time. But once a month they come into “kemming” for a few days and become either male or female for purposes of reproduction. Which sex the Gethenians transform into depends on conditions they find when the state of kemmering begins. Although Le Guin refers to them as “he,” sometimes they are “she.” The Terran, Genly Ai, finds this more than disconcerting because he comes from a place where everyone is either a he or a she, and he treats them according to this permanent state. Ai is himself always a male. Needless to say, this book, first published in 1969, had a deep influence on the Second Wave feminists of the day, and that includes me.
Another highly influential book was The Dispossessed. Here she creates two twin worlds. One world is rather like ours is these days. Cut throat capitalism rules, and anyone unlucky enough to not be part of the elite are doomed to suffer – homelessness and hunger abound in the shadow of extreme wealth. The other world is socialistic and authoritarian, but no one goes hungry. Le Guin called this world “an ambiguous utopia.”
Le Guin considered herself a feminist. She was also an advocate of non-violence and expressed a deep interest in ecology and a concern for our environment. She was influenced by Daoist philosophy, and that shows up in her writing, too.
Not only was she a terrific writer, Le Guin also had a wicked sense of humor. Regarding her advice for women writers, she said: If you want your writing to be taken seriously, don’t marry and have kids, and above all, don’t die. But if you have to die, commit suicide. They approve of that.” For the record, Le Guin married, had three children, and did not commit suicide.
Perhaps her most famous quote is from The Left Hand of Darkness, a quote that is unfortunately often attributed to Hemingway, “It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
In December 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published her book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters in which she ruminates on old age. Le Guin died in January, 2018.