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Ursula K. Le Guin and the Three Obstacles

What the science-fiction writer still has to overcome to be recognized as the titan she was.

Ursula Le Guin.
Ursula Le Guin.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s long journey to the status of literary titan is not quite complete, despite the author’s death on Monday at the age of 88. It will take the world a little while yet to reckon with how much she accomplished and how much it means to us. Indeed, part of Le Guin’s greatness lay in her ability to crack open the shells we didn’t even realize had confined us, loosing us into a larger world filled with wild new possibilities.

Le Guin, like any protagonist in a folk tale, had to overcome three obstacles along the way: the prejudices harbored against genre, gender, and geography. “I published as a genre writer when genre was not literature,” she told the New York Times, although debate still rages on in some backward quarters over genre fiction’s literary merit. She turned to writing science fiction and fantasy after her attempts at realism met with little success, and there she discovered an exceptionally engaged and intelligent readership. As a woman, however, she didn’t always find her perspective appreciated or even understood in the male-dominated science-fiction community. In 1971, she was asked to blurb an anthology of “the most innovative, thought-provoking, speculative fiction ever,” by an editor who somehow failed to notice that he had not included a single female. In a celebrated letter, Le Guin declined, dismissing the anthology not just for this omission, but for its tone, “which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room. … Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.”

Lastly, and often underestimated, is Le Guin’s identity as a Californian—or to be more precise, a daughter of the Pacific Rim. A writer of her powers might have been noticed by the literary establishment if she had been hanging around New York, or even Cambridge, but she was off on the other edge of the continent, and looking in the opposite direction, toward the unexpected and the unmeasured. As the daughter of two anthropologists—her father, Alfred Kroeber, who studied under Franz Boas, received the first doctorate in the discipline awarded by Columbia University and founded the anthropology department at the University of California at Berkeley—she grew up aware of the infinite variety in what she once described as “the different things people do and the different ways they do them.” Her father worked with Ishi, a man thought to be the last member of the Yahi people of California, and her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, a biography of this lonely figure. Before young Ursula were countless examples of many ways that people choose, or are forced, to live.

She took everything that might have hindered a lesser spirit and made it into a strength. As part of the New Wave in science fiction in the 1960s and ’70s, she and writers like Samuel R. Delany, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick brought sophisticated prose style and contemporary political and sexual questions into a genre that had often felt artless and blunt.* Science-fiction writers often describe their work as being more about ideas than characters or language, but Le Guin, with feminist novels like 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness, showed how much further ideas could be taken, how a story could demolish beliefs about identity that had previously been taken for granted. In that novel, a human ambassador to another planet negotiates with an alien race that has no fixed gender, assuming male or female characteristics temporarily during a monthly fertile period. He’s compelled to think about what a self can be once gender has been subtracted as a fixed identity. Her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, viewed by some as her masterpiece, juxtaposes three political systems—capitalist, socialist, anarcho-syndicalist—allowing their relative strengths and weaknesses to play out.

But possibly Le Guin’s most influential works of all were the Earthsea series, absorbed into the imaginations of countless young readers, some of whom went on to become novelists themselves: David Mitchell, N.K. Jemisin, and Neil Gaiman are just a few. Infused with Le Guin’s enthusiasm for Taoism, the series, which begins with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), abandons the Medieval European motifs and frameworks that undergirded the fantasy genre at that time.* Her characters inhabit a universe that defies the simplistic division of forces into good and evil. They are brown-skinned and black-haired, although Le Guin doesn’t make a big deal of this—partly because she wanted to lure fans of Eurocentric fantasy into identifying with someone different, but partly because that’s just how the inhabitants of the Earthsea archipelago looked. The series featured dragons who possessed a culture of their own—nothing interested Le Guin more than how cultures shape and reflect us—and an academy for wizardry long before Hogwarts was a glimmer in Jo Rowling’s eye. But to read the Earthsea books as a young person is to be offered glimpses of the depths that much conventional fantasy skirts.

To the end, Le Guin challenged easy habits and preconceptions. Her last novel, Lavina (2008), is a radical, and profoundly beautiful, act of empathy with a woman (the Latin princess who marries Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid) who finds meaning in tradition, duty, and “the old, local, earth-deep religion” her people have observed for centuries. Rather than confining her, Lavinia can feel these rites and customs “enlarging the scope of my soul and mind”—liberating her “from the narrowness of the single self.”

When the recognition Le Guin had earned finally began to be paid to her, she did not waste the opportunity. Presented at the 2014 National Book Awards ceremony with an award celebrating her distinguished contribution to American letters, she delivered a carefully honed speech, nodding to the “writers of the imagination” who had been “excluded from literature for so long” and protesting the encroachment of consumerism on art. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” she said. She knew this because she did it herself.

*Correction, Jan. 24, 2018: This article originally misspelled Samuel Delany’s last name.

*Correction, Jan. 25, 2018: This article originally misstated when A Wizard of Earthsea was published. It was in 1968, not 1975.

Read more in Slate about Ursula K. Le Guin.

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