The endlessly creative sci-fi writer pushed us all to imagine better worlds, both in fiction and in real life
In the last few years, our literature, our politics, and our identities have been shaped (or stunted) by the idea that an all-out dystopia is rapidly approaching. The pessimists among us would argue that we’re already living in it – it’s the Trump era, and our planet is slowly being ravaged by climate change. But sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away yesterday at the age of 88, has always asserted that the dystopia is a limited form. She’s made that clear across her own canon and in a lovely review of another sci-fi novel. It’s a mindset that’s borne some of the most fantastical, hopeful, world-wielding literature beyond the usual conventions of our time: entirely radical dimensions that reflect what our world could and should be.
Le Guin wrote 20 novels, over 100 short stories, 12 books of poetry, seven essay collections, 13 children’s books and a guide for budding writers across a career spanning several decades. In her impressive output, she was able to give cavernous depth and emotion to sci-fi and fantasy, powering past what can be a cannibalistic cross-genre to give life to the everyday and complex character relationships. With a distinctly Daoist sensibility, her fantasies feel lived-in, like medieval epics or pre-biblical alien texts. In a 2013 interview she rejected the ‘sci-fi writer’ tag, calling it limiting and inaccessible: “my tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions”.
Left Hand of Darkness, maybe Le Guin’s most well-known and referenced novel, was published in 1969. Amid the women’s liberation and free sexuality movement, she wrote of the planet Gethen, where gender wasn’t fixed. “The king was pregnant” is a line few could ever possibly forget. In 1974, The Dispossessed explored the fruits and oppressions of a classless utopia and a capitalist superworld, allowing the reader to dissect the light and dark spots of both. Her Earthsea cycle (beginning in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea) starts on a wizard’s fascinating coming-of-age with a magical backdrop, exploring themes of death, gender, belief systems and power. Though billed as books for the young and devoured by many as kids and teens, Le Guin’s prose never spoke down to readers, instead thrilling them with vivid universes and textured storytelling.
“Science fiction has wasted far too much time apologising to the pretentious and explaining itself to the willfully ignorant,” Le Guin wrote when praising feminist sci-fi pioneer Doris Lessing’s writing in 1979. She poked at the “so-called realist” fiction writers with her daring works, and alongside Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Begum Rokeya and Margaret Cavendish, Le Guin crafted a feminist space within science fiction. When she did write of male protagonists, they never fell into two-dimensional archetypes. As the power of ‘true names’ and language is shown in her Earthsea series, Le Guin knew the force her craft had on creating a better political and social climate. In 2004, she criticised a TV adaption of Earthsea, which cast Ged (who has “red-brown” skin) as a white man. “My colour scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start,” she wrote in Slate. “I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had ‘violet eyes’).” A letter from 1987 saw the writer decline an offer to write a blurb for a collection that had no women involved. Le Guin was passionately political, and illustrated anarchist galaxies where resistance brought character development and resolve. In recent years she spoke frequently against Trump, and criticised Amazon’s monopolising power over publishing. Both Le Guin’s writing and her life saw her ferociously take on the patriarchy and the status quo.
“We live in capitalism,” she wrote. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
One of Le Guin’s most inspiring qualities was her ability to be so open about her own progression. “Minds that don’t change are like clams that don’t open,” she wrote in an updated introduction to her 1976 essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?’. 10 years later, she pondered what else she could have done as a ‘feminist’ writer, and the gender and sexual dynamics she could have pushed further.
Le Guin is known best for her ability to craft enchanting new worlds in language: planets swathed in galactic crust that could swallow our own, the soft moss of an extra-terrestrial forest floor between toes, hulking tombs and decaying islands. But perhaps the truly radical legacy of her work is how very perceptive and reflective it is of the world we actually live in – and how much she fought for this world to change for the better. “I’m not very good at bad guys… I don’t find villainy in itself very interesting,” she explained to Bill Moyers in an interview discussing her work Lathe of Heaven. “I find the normal attempt to just do good and get through life much more interesting.”