Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929–2018
The novelist who conjured fantastic worlds
Ursula K. Le Guin emerged from the 1960s to become a towering figure in the male-dominated world of science fiction and fantasy. While most of her contemporaries produced macho tales of good triumphing over evil, Le Guin was more interested in ideas of balance—informed by her study of Taoism—gender, and cultural conditioning. Her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, now taught widely in high schools and colleges, is set on a planet whose humanlike inhabitants are neither male nor female. Her six-book Earthsea cycle imagines a fantastical realm where magic is practiced with the precision, and moral ambiguity, of science. For Le Guin, the radical possibilities of science fiction and fantasy were the perfect tools for exploring our own changing world. “At this point,” she said in 1973, “realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.”
Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, Calif., to anthropologist parents who studied Native American peoples, said The New York Times. At a young age, “she immersed herself in books about mythology, classic fantasies, and the science fiction magazines of the day.” After studying French and Italian literature at college, she won a Fulbright fellowship to study in Paris, where she met her future husband, historian Charles Le Guin, said The Washington Post. Back in the U.S., she wrote realist poetry and short stories “before returning to science fiction in the 1960s.” Her first three novels disappeared almost without notice, but Le Guin’s fourth, 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea, established her as a rising star and launched a best-selling series.
Le Guin’s fiction was often ahead of its time, said ArsTechnica.com. Her 1966 novel Planet of Exile, about “a world with 15-year-long seasons” and creatures that attack from the icy north, presaged Game of Thrones. The Word for World Is Forest, a 1972 Vietnam War critique in which humans invade a planet of nature-loving aliens, seemed to inspire James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar. Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2014 National Book Awards, Le Guin dedicated the honor to fellow “writers of the imagination” who had long been ignored by the literary establishment. “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now,” she said, “and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”