THE FEMINIST, THE FANTASIST URSULA LE GUIN (1930-2018)
Ursula Le Guin, high priestess of fantasy fiction and an influence on probably every writer of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) of any worth today, died earlier this week at the age of 88 at her home in the United States. Her substantial output — over 20 novels and many more short stories — have been translated into 40 languages, have sold millions of copies and have won several honours, including the Locus, the Nebula, the Hugo, the World Fantasy and the National Book awards. Her collection of short fiction, Unlocking the Air and Other Short Stories, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997. As well as writing fantasy fiction — some of her best-known works are the Earthsea series, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia and The Left Hand of Darkness — Le Guin was a critic, an essayist and a reviewer.
It is sad that not enough people seem to know about Le Guin, whom ‘literary’ writers such as Michael Chabon called “the greatest American writer of her generation” and whose death has left every writer and reader of genre fiction heartbroken. This is what happens when you ghettoise SFF — you remove writers of incredible skill, talent and value from visibility. You put people in a box to forget about them, to pretend that that which is not like you, is not as important; that which makes you see yourself differently, that which cannot be swallowed easily, is not ‘right.’ Ghettos are for the ‘other’ and Le Guin was not afraid of being that. “For fantasy is true, of course,” she once said. “It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.”
Le Guin constantly challenged racial assumptions in fiction; she refused to be tied to the traditions of phallocentric heroic fantasy literature, constantly asserted that gender was not binary and created worlds with the freedom of an imagination that knew no bounds at all. And why should it? She often talked of imagination as the key to achieving anything worthwhile, even “perception and compassion and hope.” Only with imagination, she knew, could we stop fearing the ‘other’.
The science in science fiction, for Le Guin, was not just robots and spaceships and cloning. It was psychology, anthropology, history and sociology; the clashing of cultures, the meeting of oppositions, colonialism and patriarchy. Science, for Le Guin, was often about understanding how humanity worked, or when it didn’t, why civilisations soared and why they fell apart. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is probably her best known short story, one that is taught in law schools, one that should be mandatory reading for everyone, with its non-traditional take on storytelling and the frightening way it makes us question how far we would go for a ‘perfect’ life, how much we would sacrifice and which of us would give it all up for justice.
Realism is a genre — a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction. But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration. Too many imaginative babies were going out with the bathwater.”
I read Earthsea as an 11- or 12-year-old — tweens were far less aware in my day than they are now — and I don’t think I understood the true depth of it until I re-read it in my 30s. But it didn’t matter because Le Guin didn’t patronise her readers, no matter what their age may have been. She was astute enough to share the privilege of imagination with them, to know that the onus lay just as much on the reader as the writer; that storytelling was a collaboration of sorts, a shared world created by both the imagination of the writer and her readers. We read books, she said, to find out who we are. Le Guin’s stories helped propel the imagination of millions of readers: The Wizard of Earthsea, a story about a young boy who trains as an apprentice wizard at a school and must fight an evil that he helped set loose upon the world, was a gateway drug for an entire generation of fantasy fans and writers, a book Margaret Atwood called one of the “wellsprings” of fantasy fiction — it probably still would be, if J.K. Rowling had ever publicly named Le Guin as influence.
Le Guin was more than a skilled writer and razor sharp critic. She was a pusher of boundaries, an artist who took old tropes and reshaped them into something startlingly new and profound. She was witty, funny and never afraid, an unabashedly honest woman in a genre that didn’t welcome female fantasy writers quite so easily. In 2016, Le Guin told The Guardian, “Realism is a genre — a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction. But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration. Too many imaginative babies were going out with the bathwater.” Always a champion of the ones who didn’t take the ordinary path, Le Guin’s work bears witness to the importance of genre fiction in asking the tough questions, in breaking down the divides and in forcing us to look at ourselves as part of a grander scheme.
Can you really grieve the death of someone you’ve never met, never spoken to? If they made you think, feel, hurt, grow the way Ursula Le Guin did, then yes, many of us can.