Thoughts on Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tyee has published my article Ursula K. Le Guin: A Visionary Writer Who Showed A New Way.

Ursula K. Le Guin has died at 88. For news that might have been expected, it still came as a shock, and one felt around the world. Her name instantly trended on Twitter, with posts in Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and Turkish.

It was a personal shock as well. I first heard of her 50 years ago, when I learned that her novel A Wizard of Earthsea and my children’s book Wonders, Inc., would both be on the fall 1968 list of Parnassus Press. A few years later I wrote her a fan letter about Wizard; she wrote back saying she’d been reading my book to her kids.

A Wizard of Earthsea shaped my own writing career. Her ocean world, studded with strange islands, inspired the Gulf of Islands — the Salish Sea, 10 million years from now — in my novel Eyas. And my hero’s journey into Hell was a homage to Le Guin’s Ged and his journey through the land of the dead.

More importantly, Le Guin almost instantly established herself as the only grownup in the field. Science fiction and fantasy were genres derived straight from teenage boys’ dreams of teenage-boy glory, with hot weapons, cool spaceships, and a princess as the prize.

Le Guin cooled our jets in 1969 with The Left Hand of Darkness, about a world locked in ice and populated by humans who become male or female for about five days a month; one can be both a father and a mother. The ambassador from Earth is called “the pervert” because he never quits being male. Half a century later we are still trying to come to terms with what she understood then.

Other books challenged other complacencies. The Dispossessed describes twin worlds, Urras and its moon Anarres — the first a capitalist, class-ridden culture and the second a colony of collectivist anarchist refugees who are taught as children not to “egoize.” Canadian man of letters George Woodcock, himself a philosophical anarchist, thought it was the greatest book on anarchy ever written — and it describes anarchy in decay.

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