Ursula K. Le Guin
October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018
A Personal Tribute
I bonded with my dad over science fiction. I’d read everything of any interest in the kids’ library and I was still a few years too young to join the adult one, so I started looking a little more closely at what he was bringing home. There were a lot of yellow jackets. He could borrow half a dozen at a time, so he did, and I was curious. So he started letting me have some. Anthologies of short stories at first then, once I was on the hook, the hard stuff – novels. I loved the ideas. He was your classical sci-fi enthusiast – young in the 40s and 50s, an engineer, an amateur futurist. When I was four he kept me up to witness the moon landing, while he assembled an Airfix model of the lunar module. I didn’t really get the momentousness of the occasion at the time, but later I was glad to have the memory.
Anyway, one day he came in and handed me a paperback, saying only, “I think you’ll like this,” and walked off. Now when I’d first started reading sci-fi he’d pointed out a few basics. All those yellow jackets, for instance, were from a certain publisher who we can’t mention who published almost exclusively sci-fi and fantasy. And if something had won a Hugo or a Nebula Award, it might well be pretty good. If you don’t know what those are, they’re a bit like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Is it the Golden Globes? Whichever one is by popular vote anyway. The Hugo is voted by fans, the Nebula by other writers. Occasionally they agree. This novel had been nominated for both. It was The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, and he was right – I liked it a lot. It was the best thing I had read, and it began what will be, for me, a lifelong relationship.
It’s an odd thing to describe, though I’ve seen quite a few attempts, the relationship you have with a writer. Entirely one-sided, nonetheless profound, a relationship entirely of the mind. They needn’t even be alive when you encounter them, but some are, and some are there in person for 40 years, and then they go, and you feel as if you’ve lost an old friend. That happened to me when I heard of the passing of Ursula Le Guin in January. And what a friend I lost! For a purely intellectual relationship, she brought an awful lot to the table, and she drew on all of it in her work. I don’t know how to even begin to approach that body of work, and the sheer scope of her knowledge and her imagination, except the way I did first time round.
When I read that first novel, set in her beloved Portland against the backdrop of majestic Mount Hood (those who have read the book will be chuckling now, others will have to read it to find out why), first she lured me in with a delicious, juicy sci-fi and philosophical what if – what if you dreamed, and your dreams became reality, but nobody else realised what was happening, only you? I mean, how good is that? What would you do? People would think you were mad if you told them. Then she introduced a character, not a hero, not a sci-fi stereotype, but a real, ordinary but nuanced character, George Orr (thought to be a reference to Orwell), who has this power and is terrified by it. He can’t stand the responsibility of determining reality, regulated only by his subconscious. He begins to dread sleep, and becomes addicted to ‘uppers’ in an attempt to avoid it. As a result of this he is caught using an illegally obtained prescription and sent to compulsory psychiatric evaluation.
We now meet his psychiatrist, the well-meaning but grandiose Dr Haber. He has a particular interest in sleep and dreaming, and using a combination of hypnosis and a machine of his own invention, designed to augment dreaming, he puts George under and directs him what to dream. Over the course of a few sessions he comes to the stunning realisation that Orr is telling the truth, that his dreams really do change reality, and begins to attempt to use him to remake the world as he, Haber, thinks it should be. This is probably the point where I should say, “Spoilers!” and discretely draw a veil over any further discussion of the plot. So lets see, she’s given me a great sci-fi idea, characters I care about, oh and did I mention that she writes beautifully? In prose that was at once sparse and sparkling she opened the doors of literature to me, far more than anything I ever read at school did.
But it doesn’t stop there. As I began to look for her work and discover it, I could not fail to be impressed by the sheer scope of her knowledge and understanding. The child of two anthropologists, she assimilated psychology, political theory and Taoism, studied French and Italian Renaissance literature, understood environmental truths, before they became inconvenient, or even fashionable, and she used all of it to craft fascinating, challenging novels which imagined an array of possible human societies, such as an androgynous one, in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ and an anarchist one in ‘The Dispossessed,’ as well as exquisite short stories like those in ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (don’t ask me where that title comes from, I assume it just sounded good, it has no obvious connection to the stories, of which there are seventeen). This she opens with the tragically beautiful ‘Semley’s Necklace.’
Before I talk about that however there is something I have to explain. Ursula Le Guin wrote both science fiction and fantasy. The readers of these genres form two discreet groups, although there is some overlap. I will mostly be talking about her science fiction, but I cannot fail to mention her acclaimed Earthsea Trilogy and associated works. A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive school for wizards, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovers is inextricably linked to him), and that he subsequently defeats. Sound familiar at all? There are words for that. Ugly words. But ugly words are not what Le Guin did. She said only that J.K. Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.
She herself was more than gracious about her own predecessors, but never less than original in her vision. Being pigeon-holed as a ‘genre writer’ meant that for much of her career she lacked the recognition by the mainstream literary establishment that she so richly deserved. It was only in recent years that this began to change. She was awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (presented by Neil Gaiman, whose many literary accomplishments include an honourable mention from me for slipping a relatively arcane Le Guin reference seamlessly into an episode of Doctor Who), and in 2017 that she was finally voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The genre itself has been more forthcoming, and she has won many Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, far more than is practical to list. Let me just mention that she was only the second ever writer to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for the same novel, with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970 (behind Frank Herbert for Dune), and was the first of only five writers in history to achieve that feat twice, in 1975, when she won for The Dispossessed (ahead of Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama/The Fountains of Paradise). Asimov only managed it once.
I mention those names because when you look to place Le Guin in the sci fi pantheon, it’s way up there you need to be looking. For my money she is the best of them. They were great storytellers, but none had her psychological or political depth. They didn’t move me, and challenge me, and delight me the way that she did. She loved to challenge assumptions, not only within the genre, but in literature more generally, and in society as a whole. Her beautifully crafted prose always had a sharp sociological edge. She consciously set off to question the norms of fantasy and science fiction, especially in terms of race and gender. She was outspoken, for instance, about the “colour scheme” of her Earthsea series. She wrote:
“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”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now.
She kept to this approach in her work from then on, not only in her Earthsea books, but also in her ‘Hainish Cycle’ works (so most of her sci-fi including those books already discussed). You’ll notice white characters are the exception rather than the rule. I was going to say her ‘hard’ sci-fi works, but in the course of research for this tribute it’s come to my attention that not everyone has the same definition of hard sci-fi as me, and here I must bring my dad in again. I read somewhere that there were those who felt that works like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were not what they considered hard sci-fi because they concentrated too much on characterisation and sociological analysis. In other words, too much about people, culture and society, not enough space ship battles. My dad had a different definition of hard sci-fi, and I’ve always followed that one. It is that in order to be considered ‘hard,’ sci-fi writing must rest on actual science, and not speculation or easy cop-outs.
So for my dad, the fact that Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle books were premised on an Einsteinian universe where faster than light travel is not possible put them firmly in the hard sci-fi category. Writers who relied on unexplained, wishful-thinking props such as warp drive (looking at you Star Trek) to circumvent Relativity could make no such claim (and yes, I know, there is some theory to support it. These days. There wasn’t when they made it up). All of which brings me back to the opening story of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, one of the finest anthologies of short stories ever published. Because there are narrative problems with an Einsteinian universe which must be addressed. Le Guin decides to meet them head on and make them integral to the plot in the story Semley’s Necklace. Semley, a member of a society which has fallen back to a pre-technological state, seeks a priceless, fabled family heirloom. She learns that it is in the possession of another culture with whom hers shares a planet, but which is a hi-tech, spacefaring society.
On hearing her request they deny knowledge of it, so she turns to a third group, the Gdemiar, who manufactured the necklace. They agree that she may reclaim the artefact, which is in a museum. On a space station. Light years away. She insists on journeying with them to recover the necklace, despite their attempts to explain the problems of Relativity this entails. She experiences the journey as ‘only one long night’ but when she returns nine years have passed, her husband is dead and her daughter is grown up. To those used to the cop outs, this comes as something of a shock. It was certainly a surprise to the 12 or 13 year old me. The rest of the anthology lived up to the promise of that opening tale, and finished with three absolute gems – a story from the perspective of a tree (the name of which I’ve borrowed for this tribute), ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’ a timeless moral conundrum that many of us on the left find defining, and a poignant prequel to her novel ‘The Dispossessed’ in which we meet Laia Asieo Odo, the semi-mythical theoretician whose writings underpin the anarcho-syndicalist society of Anarres, on the last day of her life, ‘The Day Before the Revolution.’
As Odo, or Laia as she thinks of herself, reminisces about her life we get to know a character who is achingly human, and at the same time a true revolutionary, throughout her life dedicated entirely to her people, often to her own detriment. It’s an exquisitely beautiful portrayal, and it demonstrates what is incomparable about Le Guin. It relies on a comprehensive knowledge of political theory, revolutionary movements, sociology, psychology, and a deep understanding of the human condition. Only a highly empathic polymath could have written it, and that’s a surprisingly rare combination. She was my introduction to most of those subjects. If you’re political, if you think about society, about how it is and how it might be, if you question what others take for granted, then I can assure you, Ursula Le Guin is the science fiction writer for you. She was the one who walked away from Omelas, she has shown us the direction of the road, but she has left us the day before the revolution. She has not left us empty handed though, so get down to your local library and make a friend for life.