Le Guin, Ursula K

Tagged: Author

(1929-    ) US writer, based in Portland, Oregon. Her first novel was published in 1966; by 1970 she was already recognized as one of the most important writers within the field. Her reputation has extended far beyond the readership of Genre SF, while within the genre she has been honoured with five Hugos and six Nebulas; as much attention has been paid to her by the academic community as to Philip K Dick.

Le Guin is the daughter of Dr Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) and Theodora Kroeber (1897-1979), the former a celebrated anthropologist who published much work on Native Americans, the latter a writer best known for Ishi in Two Worlds (1961). Le Guin was thus brought up in academic surroundings; her own education, including a master's degree from Columbia, was in Romance Literatures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, particularly French. She wrote Poetry – collected in several volumes beginning with Wild Angels (coll 1975 chap) – and a number of unpublished realistic novels, mostly set in an imaginary Central European country, before turning to sf. (It is generally assumed that her two Orsinia books, both set in nineteenth-century "Orsinia", Orsinian Tales [coll of linked stories 1976] and Malafrena [1979] – neither sf or fantasy – are reworkings of this 1950s Central European material, with its whiff of Ruritania.) Searoad: The Chronicles of Klatsand (coll 1991), assembling nonfantastic stories set on the Oregon coast, conveys some of the same capably restrained immanence. Typically, Le Guin's tales set a man in an alien (and perhaps alienated) world, and follow him on a quest, until he makes a Conceptual Breakthrough and proves an agent for the reconciliation of the sundered parts; the quest often takes the form of a winter journey.

All her early published genre stories were bought by Cele Goldsmith for Amazing and Fantastic, her first published genre piece being "April in Paris" for Fantastic in September 1962; like much of her early work this is more Fantasy than sf, though she makes no rigorous distinction between the two, as she notes in "A Citizen of Mondath" (July 1973 Foundation) and other essays in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (coll 1979; rev with bibliography omitted 1989; rev 1992) edited by Susan Wood.

Much of Le Guin's earlier work, initially known as the Hainish series but now also referred to as the League of All Worlds series, is set in a common universe. A Forerunner race of human stock, from the planet Hain, once seeded the habitable worlds of our part of the Galaxy with human life; this has resulted in great cultural variety, useful for a writer who grew up with Anthropology as an everyday discipline. Six novels and several novellas, novelettes and variously assembled short stories belong to the sequence, which covers about 2500 years of future History, beginning 300-400 years from now.

Le Guin's first three novels come late in the sequence's internal chronology. They are Rocannon's World (September 1964 Amazing as "The Dowry of Angyar"; exp 1966 dos; text corrected 1977), Planet of Exile (1966 dos) and City of Illusions (1967), and were collected as Three Hainish Novels (omni 1978). In Rocannon's World an ethnographer is marooned on a primitive planet with which he comes to terms only with difficulty; finally, in giving himself to the planet, he receives in return the gift of "mindspeech" or Telepathy (> ESP). Planet of Exile, set over 1000 years later, has mindspeech in normal use; a Terran colony is struggling to survive on a planet whose natives they despise (> Colonization of Other Worlds); under pressure the two communities are finally able to merge. City of Illusions is set on a cowed Ruined Earth ruled by the human-seeming but alien Shing invaders who have the hitherto unknown art of "mindlying". The Amnesiac hero turns out, when his memory is restored, to be a messenger from the planet of the previous book; able to detect mindlying, he will be the agent of destruction for the malign Shing.

Perhaps the generic structures of these books are too conventional to sustain fully the weight of meaning they are required to bear. But, though apprentice work, they all show, well developed, the typical Le Guin strategy of shaping a story around recurrent motifs, which gain in richness and density as the action juxtaposes them in new patterns, until it might almost be said that the motifs are the story. Many of these are the simple archetypal symbols that have always dominated myth and poetry: darkness and light, root and branch, winter and summer, submission and arrogance, language and silence. These are not seen by Le Guin as polarities or opposed forces; rather, they are twin parts of a balanced whole, each deriving meaning from the other. Le Guin's dualism, insofar as it exists, is not so much in the Western philosophical tradition (where progress is often seen to derive from the tension of antitheses, as in Marxist dialectics) as in the Eastern Taoist tradition, where the emphasis is on balance, mutuality (as in yin and yang) and an ordered wholeness; in Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (1997) she has cogently presented this philosophy. However, while Jungian archetype and the tenets of Taoism play a central role in all Le Guin's work, critical commentaries on Le Guin have emphasized them almost too much; they are by no means the whole story.

The first work of Le Guin's maturity as a writer is The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. The story is told in a prose notable for its clarity and evocative precision. Once again an ethnologist visits a planet, this time Gethen, whose people are androgynous; normally neuter, they have the capability of becoming either male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle; the world itself is snow-bound. The professional observer cannot hold aloof from events; in the novel's most moving sequence, a long, lonely journey across the ice, he reaches a painful understanding with, and a reciprocated love for, the Gethenian protagonist. Because the Gethenians appear initially to be like us, the reading experience – a gradual understanding of their differences from us – invites thoughtfulness about the nature of Sex and sexism in our world, and of cultural chauvinism generally. These four Hainish novels were reprinted along with The Word for World Is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976) (see below) as Five Complete Novels (omni 1985).

The next two important items in the Hainish sequence are novellas: "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (in New Dimensions I, anth 1971, ed Robert Silverberg), its title taken from Andrew Marvell's "To his Coy Mistress", is set just after the action of Rocannon's World; The Word for World Is Forest, which won a 1973 Hugo for Best Novella, is set rather earlier. Both place humans on alien planets; the first (> Living Worlds) is inhabited by only a sentient plant network (the previous line of the Marvell poem is "My vegetable love should grow"); the second planet is occupied by a much-exploited native race (> Imperialism), in a situation clearly made to articulate parallels with the Vietnam War. In both cases a kind of union is gained through human surrender to otherness, and alienation is imaged as violence, madness and ravening egoism. Le Guin's stories are remarkably persuasive and consistent in their outlook, although the answers tend to come less easily in the work of her middle period, whose major work was the fifth novel in the Hainish sequence.

This was The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), which also won a Hugo and a Nebula, and is widely regarded as Le Guin's most richly textured sf work. It is not a book in which difficulties are readily surmounted; a central image is the wall. The novel stands at the head of the Hainish sequence, for it tells the life of a physicist whose new Mathematics (by another Conceptual Breakthrough) will result in the Ansible, the instantaneous-communication device (> Faster Than Light) necessary if the League of All Worlds – the galactic network about which the sequence is constructed – is to come into being. Two inhabited worlds, one a moon of the other, have different systems of Politics: one is an anarchy (reminiscent of that proposed in real life by Peter Kropotkin [1842-1921]), the other is primarily capitalist. The hero, Shevek, is not completely at home in either society. The book has been read as pitting a Utopia against a Dystopia, but, as the book's subtitle implies, there are seldom absolutes in Le Guin's work; the (at least initially far more attractive) anarchist society is in some ways blinkered and emotionally regimented (with the willing collaboration of its people). Ideationally the novel is very strong, but a slight didactic dryness in the telling – which, perhaps deliberately, hinders any simple emotional identification with the hero – has alienated some readers. Nonetheless, it is a deeply imagined work of art. The short story "The Day Before the Revolution" (August 1974 Galaxy) is an introduction to the anarchist society of The Dispossessed, being the tired, unromantic last memories of that society's founder; it, too, won a Nebula. Later series stories are assembled in The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (coll 2002). In the sixth Hainish or League of All Worlds novel – The Telling (2000), which won the Locus Award – a visitor to a world within the League discovers, somewhat lassitudinously, that reality cannot be grasped unless it is told, and that oppositions dissolve into appositions in the telling.

One interesting non-Hainish novel was published before The Dispossessed. Set in the imaginative territory generally associated with Philip K Dick, The Lathe of Heaven (March-May 1971 Amazing; 1971) tells of a man who through his dreams can bring alternate reality structures into being. In its interest in Metaphysics, it is of a piece with her other work, including her fantasy (see below). It was intelligently dramatized for US television as The Lathe of Heaven. A second television dramatization was aired in 2002, directed by Philip Haas. The consensus is that the remake is notably inferior to the original programme, which was memorable enough to ensure that the 2002 version is a pointless tautology.

Through all this period (1962-1974), Le Guin also wrote non-Hainish fiction, including the Hugo-winning "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas" (in New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg), a bitter, deft parable about the cost of the good life, and Nine Lives (November 1969 Playboy; 1992 chap), a moving story of Clones mining an alien planet. With the exception of The Word for World Is Forest, the best of Le Guin's early short fiction can be found in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (coll 1975; UK paperback 1978 2vols), her first and finest collection. For some years Le Guin's production of stories diminished; one of the more remarkable, The New Atlantis (in The New Atlantis, anth 1975, ed Robert Silverberg; 1989 chap dos), is a dark Near-Future story, in which a ruined Ecology is causing the USA (along with its frightened and frightening state apparatus) to sink into darkness just as Atlantis's white towers re-emerge above the sea; it ends ambiguously – as much of Le Guin's later fiction does – with the cry of the Atlanteans: "We are here. Where have you gone?" This is one of the stories in Le Guin's second collection, The Compass Rose (coll 1982), an occasionally whimsical book which although it won a Ditmar Award had a mixed critical reception, as did the novella The Eye of the Heron (in Millennial Women, anth 1978, ed Virginia Kidd; 1982), an over-diagrammatic political fable whose translucent simplicity approaches self-Parody. Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1971-1987 var mags; coll 1987) contains stories and poems about animals, many being previously collected, but featuring the first book appearance of "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight?" (November 1987 F&SF); this Hugo-winning story recounts a human girl's meeting with incarnations of Native American spirit animals (including Coyote); it was later released as a graphic novel, Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight? (graph 1994). She received a further short-fiction Nebula for "Solitude" (December 1994 F&SF). From the beginning of the 1990s, her short-story production increased; non-series titles include A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (coll 1994), which continues to reflect Le Guin's increasing absorption in tales that – while difficult to define generically – range comprehensively over the terrains of the fantastic, as do the thematically connected Hainish tales in Four Ways to Forgiveness (coll 1995). Unlocking the Air (coll 1996) assembles mostly nonfantastic work; Changing Planes (coll of linked stories 2003) deliciously comprises a series of tales set in various Parallel Worlds reachable (as the punning title indicates) via airport lounges, each society taking the form of a Utopia or Dystopia or land of marvels, in the tradition of the Fantastic Voyage.

It became clear in Le Guin's fiction after The Dispossessed (including the Orsinia sequence) that her strongly utopian impulse was taking over. This is unusual in postwar sf, whether genre sf or mainstream. Because utopian fiction tends not to be plot-driven, much of her fiction – before what seems to have been a clear revival of her interest in storytelling in the 1990s – seems a little static: it consciously demands a more contemplative kind of attention than that dictated by most sf. It is a difficult, quixotic demand, since it requires that the reader will accept a cultural re-education. The clearest example is the biggest of her sf novels, Always Coming Home (1985). This is an experiment: a collage of verse, reports, tales, drawings by Margaret Chodos, an associated cassette of SF Music by Todd Barton, and even recipes, all relating to the matriarchal society of the Kesh, who live in the Napa Valley in a future California long after some catastrophic event has sunk the coastal cities, creating a rather nurturing Ruined Earth. An intermittent narrative tells of a woman who marries into, then flees from, a masculine, aggressive society. Utopia is here approached by way of a fictional anthropology, which focuses on its society not by asking the sf question, "How did it get that way?", but simply asking: "What is it?"

Le Guin's Fantasy stories may be her most personal work, and have given some of her readers more pleasure than anything she has written. The initial Earthsea trilogy, austere but vivid, is a major work whose appeal goes far beyond the teenagers at whom in the first instance it was aimed: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (Winter 1970/1971 Worlds of Fantasy #3: exp 1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972; slightly cut 1973), collected as Earthsea (omni 1977; vt The Earthsea Trilogy 1979). Set on Islands in an ocean world, the trilogy tells of training in a Magic so rigorous in its principles as to be easily understood as a form of alternate science. The books recount episodes in the apprenticeship, the full-powered maturity and the final death-quest of a magician, Ged. A grave joyfulness pervades the trilogy, which is perhaps more maturely thoughtful (while remaining exciting) than the comparable Narnia series of C S Lewis. However, over the next decade a certain backlash against Le Guin became evident from the women's movement. It was alleged that, especially in this trilogy, Le Guin saw men as the actors and doers in the world (magicians are male) while women remain the still centre, the well from which they drink. Le Guin's Feminism certainly altered in nature over the next two decades (as evident in Always Coming Home), and she also made a kind of restitution by writing a fourth novel in the Earthsea series: Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990). It is a sad, powerful, quiet book about the strength of women (and the ultimate impotence of Ged); it won a Nebula. Earthsea Revisioned (1992 lecture given as "Children, Men and Dragons"; 1993 chap) considers some issues raised within – and by – the sequence. Tales from Earthsea (coll 2001) and The Other Wind (2001), both assembled as Tales from Earthsea & The Other Wind (omni 2001), explore threats to, and the maintenance of, a balanced universe. The novel is particularly scathing – though in a subcutaneous manner easily missed – about Religions that attempt to disrupt the balance through their advocacy of Immortality. But as there is no heaven in Earthsea, the religious dead are endangering the workings of reality by clogging limbo, and must be released in order to die properly.

Over and above her main series and individual stories, Le Guin's further work has remained various. The Beginning Place (1980; vt Threshold 1980), is a poignant fantasy novel for young adults about an ambiguously desirable alternate world; the Annals of the Western Shore, comprising Gifts (2004), Voices (2006) and Powers (2007), the last of which gained a Nebula, is a Young Adult fantasy sequence. Lavinia (2008) depicts the life of Aeneas's wife; Virgil, whose ghost appears to Lavinia, hardly mentions her, but she is the only one of his characters to understand her fictionality – the relationship between Creator and autonomous Created interestingly shaped Brian W Aldiss's near-contemporary Jocasta: "Wife and Mother" (2005). Of Le Guin's four anthologies – Nebula Award Stories 11 (anth 1976); Interfaces (anth 1980) and Edges (anth 1980), both with Virginia Kidd; and The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990 (anth 1993) with Brian Attebery, assisted by Karen Joy Fowler – the latter anthology has proved most influential by far. Later nonfiction pieces, mostly literary essays and reviews, have been assembled in Dancing at the End of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (coll 1989), Cheek by Jowl (coll 2009) and elsewhere. In 1989 she received the Pilgrim Award for services to sf criticism.

The limpid, serene clarity of her fables, whether in fantasy, sf or even the quasihistorical fiction of her Orsinia stories, is powerful, and has won her many loyal friends, even in the genre readership which some see her as having abandoned. Why else would this group continue to award her Hugos and Nebulas through to the end of the 1980s? It is possible that Le Guin has been overpraised, but she has given much to the genre, not least by showing (through example) how the traditional novelist's interest in questions of character and moral growth need not be alien to sf. John Clute once wrote of her as "eminently sane, humanitarian, concerned" but went on to lament a "fatal lack of risk". This may be overstatement, and its author would not now apply the comment to her work as a whole, but it pointed to a quality in her work that had been observed by other critics. It is true that Le Guin's certainties could, perhaps, be more open to the random and the unpredictable. But can self-confidence justly be evidenced as a flaw?

Le Guin received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement for 1995, was included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001, and received the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2002 and an Eaton Award in 2012. [PN/JC]

see also: Ace Books; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Children's SF; Cities; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Gandalf Award; Genetic Engineering; Gods and Demons; Imaginary Science; Invasion; Leisure; Libertarian SF; Life on Other Worlds; Linguistics; Mainstream Writers of SF; Mythology; Optimism and Pessimism; Pastoral; Perception; Physics; Race in SF; Science Fiction Foundation; Scientists; Sociology; Thought Experiment; Transgender SF; Virtual Reality; Women SF Writers.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin

born Berkeley, California: 21 October 1929

died

works

series

League of All Worlds/Hain

Earthsea

Orsinia

  • Orsinian Tales (New York: Harper and Row, 1976) [coll of linked stories: Orsinia: hb/Muriel Nasser]
  • Malafrena (New York: Harper and Row, 1979) [Orsinia: hb/Michael Mariano]

Adventures in Kroy

Catwings

Annals of the Western Shore

  • Gifts (New York: Harcourt, 2004) [Annals of the Western Shore: hb/Cliff Nielsen]
  • Voices (London: Orion Children's Books, 2006) [Annals of the Western Shore: hb/Larry Rostant]
  • Powers (London: Orion Children's Books, 2007) [Annals of the Western Shore: hb/Larry Rostant]

individual titles

collections and stories

stories for younger children

  • Leese Webster (New York: Atheneum, 1979) [chap: for younger children: hb/James Brunsman]
  • A Visit from Dr Katz (New York: Macmillan Atheneum, 1988) [chap: for younger children: hb/Ann Barron]
  • Fire and Stone (New York: Macmillan Atheneum, 1989) with Laura Marshall [chap: for younger children: hb/Laura Marshall]
  • Fish Soup (New York: Macmillan Atheneum, 1992) [chap: for younger children: hb/Patrick Wynne]
  • A Ride on the Red Mare's Back (New York: Orchard, 1992) [chap: for younger children: hb/Julie Downing]
  • Tom Mouse (New York: Millbrook/Roaring Brook Press, 2002) [chap: for younger children: hb/Julie Downing]
  • Cat Dreams (New York: Orchard Books, 2010) [graph: illus/hb/S D Schindler]

poetry and plays

works as editor

nonfiction

about the author

links

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