Ursula Le Guin, who died last Tuesday aged 88, was at the same time both a miraculous rarity and the kind of person—and writer—we desperately need more of. Her body of work encompasses novels, including the famous and beloved Earthsea novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, criticism and more (including speculative anthropology). She published her first short story at thirty-two, and while perhaps the chief characteristic of her early work was, as she says, an "open romanticism," Le Guin's work gradually became, again in her own words, "something harder, stronger, and more complex." It also became the site of radical emancipatory visions, courageous and profound reimaginings of the way life is, and a beautiful yet clear-eyed utopianism. It became, in other words, extraordinary.
She might be best-known nowadays for the groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and its androgynous protagonist; and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), which presented a functioning (if highly imperfect) anarchosyndicalist utopia. And there’s Earthsea, of course, a series of epic fantasy novels that set the blueprint for the genre. As one review says so accurately about them: "they read as if they were not written but found, dug out like jewels from rock" (Village Voice). But Le Guin's vision reached far beyond these better-known works. There's Always Coming Home, (1985), an extraordinary piece of worldbuilding detailing the lives of people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." There's The Lathe of Heaven, an exploration of the fragile nature of reality; and The Word for World is Forest (1976), both ecocriticism and anti-imperialist touchstone. There are very many others, too, all of which evince her fearless creative rigour.
Le Guin's non-fiction displayed the same clarity. She was a prolific essayist and critic, writing on subjects varying from feminism and politics, as in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989), to language and literature, as in Steering the Craft (1998), and also, quite often, her home state of California (she was born and grew up in Berkeley, although she and her family moved to Portland, Oregon sixty years ago). Her exploration of these worlds was curious, lucid, inspiring, and generous. In 2015, she even did an open access online writer's workshop, and was inundated with questions—her first response was to one asking: "How do you make something good?" She called fiction "a golden string" that leads us "to the freedom that is properly human, the freedom open to those whose minds can accept unreality."
Often, writers as revered as Le Guin can feel austere: they seem like gods, their feats unreproducible. She might be firmly fixed in the pantheon, but she made it clear she had no time for airs and graces. She seemed intimately connected to everyday life and daily reality—her blog posts over the past few years about her cat, Pard, for example, showed her dry sense of humour, her deep appreciation of the immediate and domestic, and her certainty that a literary sensibility is utterly at home amongst cats, friends, and family.
At Strange Horizons, we look to the future of speculative fiction—we hope to be open to the constant unfolding of new perspectives, new possibilities, and, especially, new voices. Le Guin wrote much of her work in an enormously productive period from the 1960s to the millennium, which should suggest, given that Strange Horizons was founded in September 2000, that she belongs to our past rather than our future. But this can't hold for Le Guin. Her ideas—particularly in the realms of politics, feminism, gender, sexuality, and spirituality—contain exactly the same liberating magic today as they did when she first conceived them. Remember, this is the woman who not so long ago reminded us that "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings." Her work is the essence of questioning, subversion, and transcendence. She will always be relevant.
Le Guin refused to accept science fiction and fantasy as marginal genres, just as she refused to accept that women weren't allowed both to participate fully in their own lives and communities and be committed, disciplined artists. In her embrace of what might instead be possible, she blazed a trail for us. She was the most wily and wise of worldmakers, and her legacy is clear—it's for us, as writers and readers, to think deeply, work with love and discipline, and to have the courage to believe in the transformative power of fiction, and of imagining other realities.
The Strange Horizons staff share their thoughts on Le Guin:
When it comes to Le Guin, her work speaks for itself, and she spoke for herself in ample interviews and lectures. Her book The Dispossessed is one of my favorite narratives in all of literature—hopeful and vital and clear-sighted. It's the book I press on friends or strangers who make the mistake of telling me "I'm looking for something to read..."
As with many of the most vital discoveries of my life, I arrived late to Le Guin’s work. During what I now recognize as the most difficult year of my 36 so far in this existence (2012), an artist friend sent me a battered, edition-mismatched set of all six Earthsea books. She recognized that I was in dire, unsafe circumstances from which I had no immediate escape, while at the same time cataloguing the self-discoveries I was unearthing (on the neurodiversity, biological sex, and gender identity fronts) while trapped in those circumstances. I can unequivocally say that the dragon women of Earthsea gave me the strength to recognize that what others called my monstrosity was worth celebrating, and that The Left Hand of Darkness steeled my resolve to cut ties with my captors and thrive. Le Guin’s writings saved my life and set me free. Every word I type is set down in the hope that I might pay these blessings forward.
She has inspired so many writers and will still continue to inspire young feminists in years to come. The Left Hand of Darkness opened my eyes. Those Who Walk Away From Omelas remains—in my mind—the most disturbing and most needed story (and more so) in this day and age when fake news and dictators dominate the media. My own regret is that I did not have the chance to meet her in person.
Requiescat in pace. Rest in power.
Maureen Kincaid Speller
I value Le Guin for her fiction, the first science fiction I ever read that was about things I also cared about, but I value her too for her non-fiction, her reviews in particular. I didn't always agree with her assessments, but that's not the point. I value her writing for the disagreements they provoke, and for the example she set me in the way she wrote about other people's work.
Her prose was incredible (has anything ever been as good at flight and sea as the Earthsea series?), her novels were all the great things people have been saying about them this past week, but like others here, I loved Le Guin most as a critic, of her own work as well as that of others. In her fiction and her nonfiction she treated books as living things that exist in and respond to the world; things to be read and written carefully and morally. We were so lucky to have her.
It took me a few tries to really enjoy Le Guin's novels-- her short stories were great, particularly "Mountain Ways", which I recommend to people who haven't read any of her work yet, but the novels suffered from people treating them as perfect. It wasn't until I learned that she thought she'd made a mistake in The Left Hand of Darkness by using masculine pronouns and that she'd change it if she could (and she did in "Coming of Age in Karhide") that I could engage with it. The book was flawed, which meant we could have a conversation, rather than me worshipping passively at the Infallible Pillar of Literature. Rather like "Mountain Ways", in fact-- the world says it's clean and simple, but then you put people in and it all tangles up.
That's what I focus on when I think of Le Guin: she criticized her own work and saw things to correct. She didn't treat any of it as fixed and unassailable, but as something alive to discuss and discover. I hope to be able to do the same.
Vanessa Rose Phin
What happens when you start out eaten? When you wander labyrinthine darknesses, performing rites with no sense, trying to make them your own rites, against the pattern of training? What happens when take off your cowl beneath the legacy that has no roof? You know what happens, because you showed it to me.
Rest in stories.