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Remembering Ursula Le Guin

Posted on 5th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Described today by Margaret Atwood as 'one of the literary greats of the 20th century', we mark the life and work of Ursula Le Guin, a visionary author who changed the road map of fiction for a generation.

As a bookseller, there are some authors who simply defy categorisation. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, who died on Monday at the age of 88, was one such writer. Influential and ground-breaking, her work ranged from short stories, poetry, children’s books and non-fiction to the fantasy and science fiction works for which she remains best-known. She was famously vocal in fighting off any attempt to nail down her writing: “Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit,” she said, “because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

Amidst the male-dominated world of science fiction writing in the 1960’s - writing Le Guin called “hardware and soldiers: White men go forth and conquer the universe” - her work was radically ahead of its time, consistently challenging prevailing depictions of race, gender and social equality. Long before George R.R. Martin coined the phrase “winter is coming”, Le Guin had already created a land in thrall to a punishing ice-scape on the snow-bound, genderless planet that formed the setting for her Hugo Award-winning masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. It wasn’t an easy ride. Le Guin wrote publicly about her long-running battle to persuade her publishers to feature her predominantly non-white characters on the covers of her books; “I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white”, she wrote bluntly. “’Hurts sales, hurts sales’ is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books… a white face is a lie, a betrayal - a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.”

That her most widely read books, the Earthsea series, are popular with adults and children alike is in no small part because Le Guin understood and conveyed so well what it is like to grow up and find your place in the world. Intensely private – she lived most of her life in Portland in a house described intriguingly as like a Tardis – she nevertheless had an uncanny understanding of people and used her fantasy worlds to get her readers to understand them better too. "'Hard'-science fiction writers", she wrote, "dismiss… Biology, sociology, anthropology - that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am.” Her affinity for the world around her reflected a lifelong interest in the environment and the concept of utopia; explored in her novels The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home. It was a passion fed by her lifelong interest in Taoism - she spent 40 years working on a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching - whose values of simplicity, acceptance, balance and order were a major influence on her fiction.

Extraordinarily prolific, she continued to write and discuss literature throughout her life with undimmed vigour. It is testament to the longevity of her writing that even her earliest works, more than half a century after their publication, feel freshly relevant. A voracious and ever-curious reader, she didn’t just write fiction brilliantly, she wrote about it better than most too, in reviews and essays that were always lively, insightful and sharply on-the-money - she certainly didn’t pull any punches. 

For many writers her work was instrumental in opening doors and breaking down barriers, those exploratory long tentacles proving influential to countless writers from Neil Gaiman to Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith. Le Guin was a writer who always insisted that the role of an author wasn’t to provide answers but to insist that people continue to ask questions and, above all, to remain curious, about themselves and the world around them.  All an author should do, she wrote, is to “tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like - what’s going on… now, today, this moment, the rain the sunlight, look! Open your eyes: listen, listen.”

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