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Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (; October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) was an American novelist. She worked mainly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. She also authored children's books, short stories, poetry, and essays. Her writing was first published in the 1960s and often depicted futuristic or imaginary alternative worlds in politics, the natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality, and ethnography. In 2016, The New York Times described her as "America's greatest living science fiction writer", although she said that she would prefer to be known as an "American novelist".
She influenced Booker Prize winners and other writers, such as Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell, and science fiction and fantasy writers including Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks. She won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award, each more than once. In 2014, she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2003, she was made a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, one of a few women writers to take the top honor in the genre.
Childhood and education
Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, on October 21, 1929. Her father Alfred Louis Kroeber was an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Le Guin's mother Theodora Kroeber had a graduate degree in psychology, but turned to writing in her sixties. She developed a successful career as an author: her best known work was Ishi in Two Worlds, a biographical volume about Ishi, an indigenous American who was the last known member of his tribe.
Ursula had three older brothers, Karl, Theodore, and Clifton. The family had a large book collection, and the siblings all became interested in reading while they were young. The Kroeber family also had a number of visitors, who included well-known academics such as Robert Oppenheimer: Le Guin would later use Oppenheimer as the model for her protagonist in The Dispossessed. The family divided its time between a summer home in the Napa valley, and a house in Berkeley during the academic year.
Le Guin's reading included science fiction and fantasy: she and her siblings frequently read issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. She was fond of myths and legends, particularly Norse mythology, and of Native American legends that her father would narrate. Other authors she enjoyed were Lord Dunsany and Lewis Padgett. Le Guin also developed an early interest in writing; she wrote a short story when she was nine, and submitted her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction when she was eleven. The piece was rejected, and she did not submit anything else for another ten years.
Le Guin attended Berkeley High School. She received her Bachelor of Arts (Phi Beta Kappa) in Renaissance French and Italian literature from Radcliffe College in 1951. As a child she had been interested in biology and poetry, but had been limited in her opportunities by her difficulties with mathematics. Le Guin undertook graduate studies at Columbia University, and earned a Master of Arts in French in 1952. Soon after, she began working towards a Ph.D., and won a Fulbright grant to continue her studies in France from 1953 to 1954.
Marriage and later life
In 1953, while traveling to France aboard the Queen Mary, Le Guin met historian Charles Le Guin. They got married in Paris a few months later. According to Le Guin, the marriage signaled the "end of the doctorate" for her. In 1959 Charles became an instructor in history at Portland State University, and the couple moved to Portland, Oregon. They would remain for the rest of their lives, although Le Guin received further Fulbright grants to travel to London in 1968 and 1975. The couple had two daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline, by the time they moved, and a son, Theodore, was born in Portland in 1964.
Le Guin's writing career began in the late 1950s, but the time she spent caring for her children constrained her writing schedule. She would continue writing and publishing for more than 50 years, until her death. She was also an editor and a teacher at the undergraduate level. She served on the editorial boards of the journals Paradoxa and Science Fiction Studies, in addition to writing literary criticism herself. She taught courses at Tulane University, Bennington College, and Stanford University, among others.
Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, at her home in Portland, Oregon at the age of 88. Her son stated that she had been in poor health for several months. He gave no specific cause for her death, but said it was likely that she had had a heart attack. She was survived by her husband Charles and her three children. Private memorial services for her were held in Portland. A public memorial service, which included speeches by Margaret Atwood, Molly Gloss, and Walidah Imarisha, was held in Portland in June 2018.
Le Guin's first published work was the poem "Folksong from the Montayna Province" in 1959, while her first short story was "An die Musik", in 1961; both were set in her fictional country of Orsinia. Between 1951 and 1961 she also wrote five novels, all set in Orsinia, which were rejected by publishers on the grounds that they were inaccessible. Some of her poetry from this period was publisher in 1975 in the volume Wild Angels. Le Guin turned her attention to science fiction after lengthy periods of receiving rejections from publishers, knowing that there was a market for writing that could be readily classified as such. Her first professional publication was the short story "April in Paris" in 1962 in Fantastic Science Fiction, and four other stories followed in the next few years, in Fantastic or Amazing Stories. Among them was The Dowry of the Angyar, which introduced the fictional Hainish Universe, and "The Rule of Names" and "The Word of Unbinding", which introduced the world of Earthsea. These stories were largely ignored by critics.
Ace Books released Rocannon's World, Le Guin's first published novel in 1966. Two more Hainish novels, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions were published in 1966 and 1967, respectively, and the three books together would come to be known as the Hainish trilogy. The first two were published as half of an "Ace Double": two novels bound into a paperback and sold as a single low-cost volume. City of Illusions was published as a standalone volume, indicating Le Guin's greater name-recognition. These books received more critical attention than Le Guin's short stories, with reviews being published in several science fiction magazines, but the critical response was still muted. The books contained many themes and ideas also present in Le Guin's better known later works, including the "archetypal journey", cultural contact and communication, the search for identity, and reconciling opposing forces.
Le Guin's next two books brought her sudden and widespread critical acclaim. A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was a fantasy novel written initially for teenagers. Le Guin had not planned to write for young adults, but was asked to write a novel targeted at this group by the editor of Parnassus Press, who saw it as a market with great potential. A coming of age story set in the fictional archipelago of Earthsea, the book received a positive reception in both the US and Britain. Her next novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, was a Hainish Universe story exploring themes of gender and sexuality on a fictional planet where humans have no fixed sex. According to scholar Donna White, the book "stunned the science fiction critics"; it won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards for best novel, making Le Guin the first woman to win these awards, and a number of other accolades. A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness were described by critic Harold Bloom as Le Guin's masterpieces. The novel was also a personal milestone for Le Guin: critics described it as her "first contribution to feminism". The fiction of the period 1966 to 1974, which also included the Hugo Award-winning The Word for World is Forest and "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and the Nebula Award-winning "The Day Before the Revolution", has been described by scholar Elizabeth Cummins as Le Guin's best-known body of work.
Le Guin continued to develop themes of equilibrium and coming-of-age in the next two installments of the Earthsea series, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, published in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Both books were praised for their writing, while the exploration of death as a theme in The Farthest Shore also drew praise. Her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, also won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novel, making her the first person to win both for the same two books. Also set in the Hainish Universe, the story explored anarchism and utopianism. Scholar Charlotte Spivack described it as representing a shift in Le Guin's science fiction towards discussing political ideas.
Style and influences
Le Guin was influenced by fantasy writers, including J. R. R. Tolkien, by science fiction writers, including Philip K. Dick (who was in her high school class, though they did not know each other), by central figures of Western literature such as Leo Tolstoy, Virgil and the Brontë sisters, by feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf, by children's literature such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, by Norse mythology, and by books from the Eastern tradition such as the Tao Te Ching.
When asked about her influences, she replied:
In the mid-1950s, she read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which had an enormous impact on her. But rather than making her want to follow in Tolkien's footsteps, it simply showed her what was possible with the fantasy genre.
Le Guin exploits the creative flexibility of the science fiction and fantasy genres to undertake thorough explorations of dimensions of both social and psychological identity and of broader cultural and social structures. In doing so, she draws on sociology, anthropology, and psychology, leading some critics to categorize her work as soft science fiction. She objected to this classification of her writing, arguing the term is divisive and implies a narrow view of what constitutes valid science fiction. Underlying ideas of anarchism and environmentalism also make repeated appearances throughout Le Guin's work.
In 2014 Le Guin said about the appeal of contemplating possible futures in science fiction:
Sociology, anthropology and psychology
Being so thoroughly informed by social science perspectives on identity and society, Le Guin treats race and gender quite deliberately. The majority of her main characters are people of color, a choice made to reflect the non-white majority of humans, and one to which she attributes the frequent lack of character illustrations on her book covers. Her writing often makes use of alien (i.e., human but non-Terran) cultures to examine structural characteristics of human culture and society and their impact on the individual.
This prominent theme of cultural interaction is most likely rooted in the fact that Le Guin grew up in a household of anthropologists where she was surrounded by the remarkable case of Ishi – a Native American acclaimed in his time as the "last wild Indian" – and his interaction with the white man's world. Le Guin's father was director of the University of California Museum of Anthropology, where Ishi was studied and worked as a research assistant. Her mother wrote the bestseller Ishi in Two Worlds. Similar elements are echoed through many of Le Guin's stories – from Planet of Exile and City of Illusions to The Word for World Is Forest and The Dispossessed.
Le Guin's writing notably employs the ordinary actions and transactions of everyday life, clarifying how these daily activities embed individuals in a context of relation to the physical world and to one another. For example, the engagement of the main characters with the everyday business of looking after animals, tending gardens and doing domestic chores is central to the novel Tehanu. Themes of Jungian psychology also are prominent in her writing.
For example Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, a series of novels encompassing a loose collection of societies, of various related human species, that exist largely in isolation from one another, providing the setting for her explorations of intercultural encounter. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed and The Telling all consider the consequences of contact between different worlds and cultures. Unlike those in much mainstream science fiction, Hainish Cycle civilization does not possess reliable human faster-than-light travel, but does have technology for instantaneous communication. The social and cultural impact of the arrival of Ekumen envoys (known as "mobiles") on remote planets, and the culture shock that the envoys experience, constitute major themes of The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin's concept has been borrowed explicitly by several other well-known authors, to the extent of using the name of the communication device (the "ansible"). The Left Hand of Darkness is particularly noted for the way she explores social, cultural, and personal consequences of sexual identity through a novel involving a human's encounter with an intermittently androgynous race. In addition to androgyny, Le Guin's focus on sexuality breaks down normative gender roles. “Solitude”, one of the stories in The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories follows a young girl, more adventurous and daring than her older brother, into a world dominated by strong, territorial women. In Paradises Lost, the people of a spaceship several generations into the voyage to a new colony-world are saved by a female interstellar navigator, an archetypal role typically reserved for men.
Elizabeth McDowell states in her 1992 master's thesis that Le Guin "identif[ies] the present dominant socio-political American system as problematic and destructive to the health and life of the natural world, humanity, and their interrelations". This idea recurs in several of Le Guin's works, most notably The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Word for World Is Forest (1972), The Dispossessed (1974), The Eye of the Heron (1978), Always Coming Home (1985), and "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" (1987). All of these works center on ideas regarding socio-political organization and value-system experiments in both utopias and dystopias. As McDowell explains, "Although many of Le Guin's works are exercises in the fantastic imagination, they are equally exercises of the political imagination."
In addition to her fiction, Le Guin's book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, a collaboration with artist Roger Dorband, is a clear environmental testament to the natural beauty of that area of Eastern Oregon. Le Guin also wrote several works of poetry and nonfiction on Mount St. Helens following the 1980 eruption. These works explore local stories and discussions surrounding the eruption event in conjunction with Le Guin's own perspective as it relates to viewing the eruption and mountain from her home in Portland, as well as her various visits into the blast zone.
Anarchism and Taoism
Le Guin's feelings towards anarchism were closely tied to her Taoist beliefs and both ideas appear in her work. "Taoism and Anarchism fit together in some very interesting ways and I've been a Taoist ever since I learned what it was." She participated in numerous peace marches and although she did not call herself an anarchist, since she did not live the lifestyle, she did feel that "Democracy is good but it isn't the only way to achieve justice and a fair share." Le Guin said: "The Dispossessed is an Anarchist utopian novel. Its ideas come from the Pacifist Anarchist tradition – Kropotkin etc. So did some of the ideas of the so-called counterculture of the sixties and seventies." She also said that anarchism "is a necessary ideal at the very least. It is an ideal without which we couldn't go on. If you are asking me is anarchism at this point a practical movement, well, then you get in the question of where you try to do it and who's living on your boundary?"
Le Guin has been credited with helping to popularize anarchism as her work "rescues anarchism from the cultural ghetto to which it has been consigned [and] introduces the anarchist vision...into the mainstream of intellectual discourse". Indeed her works were influential in developing a new anarchist way of thinking; a postmodern way that is more adaptable and looks at/addresses a broader range of concerns.
Legacy and influence
Adaptations of her work
Few of Le Guin's major works have been adapted for film or television. Her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven has been adapted twice: The first adaptation was made in 1979 by WNET Channel 13 in New York, with her own participation, and the second adaptation was made in 2002 by the A&E Network. In a 2008 interview, she said she considers the 1979 adaptation as "the only good adaptation to film" of her work to date.
In the early 1980s animator and director Hayao Miyazaki asked permission to create an animated adaptation of Earthsea. However, Le Guin, who was unfamiliar with his work and anime in general, turned down the offer. Years later, after seeing My Neighbor Totoro, she reconsidered her refusal, believing that if anyone should be allowed to direct an Earthsea film, it should be Hayao Miyazaki. The third and fourth Earthsea books were used as the basis of the 2006 animated film Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記, Gedo Senki). The film, however, was directed by Miyazaki's son, Gorō, rather than Hayao Miyazaki himself, which disappointed Le Guin. While she was positive about the aesthetic of the film, writing that "much of it was beautiful", she took great issue with its re-imagining of the moral sense of the books and greater focus on physical violence. "[E]vil has been comfortably externalized in a villain", Le Guin writes, "the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems. In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions."
In 1987, the CBC Radio anthology program Vanishing Point adapted The Dispossessed into a series of six 30-minute episodes, and at an unspecified date The Word for World Is Forest as a series of three 30-minute episodes.
In 1995, Chicago's Lifeline Theatre presented its adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reviewer Jack Helbig at the Chicago Reader wrote that the "adaptation is intelligent and well crafted but ultimately unsatisfying", in large measure because it is extremely difficult to compress a complex 300-page novel into a two-hour stage presentation.
In 2004 the Sci Fi Channel adapted the first two books of the Earthsea trilogy as the miniseries Legend of Earthsea. Le Guin was highly critical of the adaptation, calling it a "far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned", objecting both to the use of white actors for her red, brown, or black-skinned characters, and to the way she was "cut out of the process".
Her novella, Paradises Lost, published in The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories, was adapted into an opera by the American composer Stephen Andrew Taylor and Canadian librettist Marcia Johnson. The opera premiered April 26, 2012, at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Illinois.
In 2013, the Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre produced a stage adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness, directed and adapted by Jonathan Walters, with text adapted by John Schmor. The play opened May 2, 2013, and ran until June 16, 2013, in Portland, Oregon.
In 2015, the BBC commissioned radio adaptations of The Left Hand of Darkness and the first three Earthsea novels. The Left Hand of Darkness was aired as two hour-long episodes, and Earthsea as six half-hour episodes.
In early 2017 Le Guin's award winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness was picked up by Critical Content, a production company formerly known as Relativity Television, to be produced as a television limited series. Le Guin was to serve as a consulting producer on the project.
In 2017, the composer John Plant composed a sonata inspired by Le Guin's 'Earthsea' tales. She received a copy of the recording by mail and sent Plant a handwritten card expressing her appreciation for the composition. The card was mailed on January 17 2018, five days before her death.
Views and advocacy
In May 1983 she delivered a well-received commencement address entitled "A Left-Handed Commencement Address" at Mills College, Oakland, California. It is listed as No. 82 in American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century, and was included in her nonfiction collection Dancing at the Edge of the World.
In December 2009, Le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild in protest over its endorsement of Google Books, Google's book digitization project. "You decided to deal with the devil", she wrote in her resignation letter. "There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle." (See Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google, Inc..)
Film-maker Arwen Curry began production on a documentary about Le Guin in 2009, filming "dozens" of hours of interviews with the author as well as many other writers and artists who have been inspired by her. Curry launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to finish the documentary in early 2016 after winning a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Lifetime and career awards
In April 2000 the U.S. Library of Congress made Le Guin a Living Legend in the "Writers and Artists" category for her significant contributions to America's cultural heritage. In 2002 she won a PEN/Malamud Award for "excellence in a body of short fiction". In 2004 she received two American Library Association honors for her lasting contributions: for young adult literature, the annual Margaret Edwards Award; for children's literature, selection to deliver the annual May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture. The annual Edwards Award recognizes one writer and a particular body of work; the 2004 panel cited six works published from 1968 to 1990: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu (the first four Earthsea books), The Left Hand of Darkness and The Beginning Place. The panel said that Le Guin "has inspired four generations of young adults to read beautifully constructed language, visit fantasy worlds that inform them about their own lives, and think about their ideas that are neither easy nor inconsequential".
In the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association gave Le Guin a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. The Washington Center for the Book recognized her distinguished body of work with the Maxine Cushing Gray Fellowship for Writers on October 18, 2006.
At its 2009 convention, the Freedom From Religion Foundation awarded the Emperor Has No Clothes Award to Le Guin. The FFRF describes the award as "celebrating 'plain speaking' on the shortcomings of religion by public figures".
In 2014, Le Guin was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation, a lifetime achievement award. Her acceptance speech, which criticized Amazon as a "profiteer" and praised her fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, was widely considered the highlight of the ceremony.
Recognizing her stature in the speculative fiction genre, Le Guin was the Professional Guest of Honor at the 1975 World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia. That year she was also named the sixth Gandalf Award Grand Master of fantasy. The Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) gave her its Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her "lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship". At the 1995 World Fantasy Convention she won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, a judged recognition of outstanding service to the fantasy field. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted her in 2001, its sixth class of two deceased and two living writers. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America made her its 20th Grand Master in 2003. In 2010, Le Guin was awarded the Lyman Tower Sargent Distinguished Scholar Award by the North American Society for Utopian Studies.
Awards for specific titles
Le Guin won dozens of annual "year's best" literary awards. For novels alone she won five Locus, four Nebula, two Hugo, and one World Fantasy Award. (The Dispossessed won the Locus, Nebula, and Hugo.) She also won those four awards in short fiction categories, although she turned down a Nebula award for her novelette The Diary of the Rose in protest at the Science Fiction Writers of America's treatment of Stanisław Lem. Her nineteen Locus Awards, voted by magazine subscribers, are more than any other writer has received. Her third Earthsea novel, The Farthest Shore, won the 1973 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and she was a finalist for ten Mythopoeic Awards, nine in Fantasy and one for Scholarship. Unlocking the Air and Other Stories was one of three finalists for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Related Work for a collection of essays entitled Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016.
Ursula K. Le Guin has written fiction and nonfiction works for audiences including children, adults, and scholars. Her most notable works are listed here.