Le Guin, Ursula K. (1929—)

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Le Guin, Ursula K. (1929—)

In the introduction to Joe De Bolt's collection of essays about Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry N. Malzberg claims that "Le Guin is probably the first writer to emerge solely within the confines of the genres of speculative fiction to win significant literary recognition … She is … the most important contemporary writer of science fiction, and this field cannot be understood if she is not." In 1997, the largest survey in the field of speculative fiction listed Le Guin as one of the top five novelists in the history of both science fiction and fantasy, beating out Isaac Asimov in science fiction and C. S. Lewis in fantasy. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Amazing Science Fiction, New Yorker, Playgirl, and Playboy. Her appeal within the genres of speculative fiction has earned her multiple Hugo, Locus, Nebula, and James Tiptree, Jr. awards. Her appeal outside that arena has yielded her such honors such as the National Book Award and the Newberry Award. Few authors have been as well received and influential in the span of their own lives as has Ursula K. Le Guin.

If there were a central metaphor to describe Le Guin's life and work, it might be the interplay of individual and society. Her own interaction with society began in a family of literate intellectuals. Her mother, Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, published The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends in 1959. As Elizabeth Cummins Cogell has claimed, this work suggests the "awareness of the female character," which has become such a force in Le Guin's own tales. Neither did Le Guin escape the influence of her father, Alfred Kroeber, who wrote prolifically in the field of anthropology. This discipline pokes its way to the surface of many of Le Guin's finest and best-known works, such as The Left Hand of Darkness and "Solitude." Anthropology is, however, more than an overt theme in her stories; it is also the source of some of her greatest strengths: her ability to craft a world, universe, and history with utter believability.

One of her father's favorite books, Dunsany's A Dreamer's Tales, impressed upon her that the archetypal images evoked by myth and fable could be and indeed still were being called forth in literature. She began writing early, and recalls submitting her first science fiction story to Astounding Stories Magazine around the age of ten. The story was rejected, but Le Guin claims that she was more "proud of having a genuine rejection slip" than she was dejected. Much later, she read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which impressed her so deeply that she claims, "If I'd read it as a kid I might have written bad imitations of it for years. As it was, I already was finding my own voice, and so could just have the joy of reading Tolkien as the creator of the greatest of the fantasy worlds."

Le Guin has constructed an original path that winds through the traditions of science fiction and fantasy as well as mainstream fiction. Orson Scott Card has noted particularly her concept of the ansible, a conceit now commonly used in science fiction which allows two parties to communicate simultaneously despite their distance. Tom Becker has praised her attention to "real world physics," saying that she exceeds even De Camp, "the only other [early science fiction] writer I know of who wasn't violating the law of relativity." Elisabeth Vonarburg further recognizes Le Guin's influence on "non-American, non English-speaking writers," as well as female writers born in the last half-century. "I still hear," says Vonarburg, "from a number of young or less young female readers what I myself have been saying for years: 'I came back to reading SF because of Le Guin."'

Her first novel, Rocannon's World, was published by Ace Books in 1966. Since then, she has explored topics as wide in variety as the influence of gender upon society (perhaps best achieved in The Left Hand of Darkness), what it means to be human, and the individual as outcast. Yet it is no great task for an author to speak out on a wide variety of tasks; where Le Guin has made her greatest mark is in her ability to craft a sound narrative with characters who embody the concepts she hopes to explore. Le Guin is above all a deeply talented storyteller, one whom Tom Becker has used to demonstrate the point that feminism is not only a source of ideas, but also a source of excellent literature.

It is difficult to narrow Le Guin's body of work to just a handful of important titles, but there are a few that have made particular impression on the field. The first of these, The Left Hand of Darkness, has crept into the canon's outskirts through women's studies and graduate programs, and was the first of her works to receive overwhelming acknowledgement from the writing community. The Dispossessed, published shortly thereafter, has likewise gained praise from nearly every quarter. Her Earthsea series, marketed as a children's book, reached new audiences for Le Guin. Unlike the other two works, this series is a high fantasy series, and it is largely on the strength of Earthsea that she has gained notoriety as a fantasy writer.

Le Guin is an active and vocal member of several feminist organizations, and has also been active in conservationist groups. As a writer, she has helped shape the ideas of such diverse speculative elements as magic, the power of language, interstellar communication, dragons, and the relationship of people across gender and racial boundaries. Her poetry has also elicited praise from critics, and she brings the poet's sense of language to her fiction. And with the publication of her 1998 Steering the Craft, a book about Le Guin's ideas on writing, it is likely that her influence on popular culture will continue long into the future.

—Joe Sutliff Sanders

Further Reading:

Cogell, Elizabeth Cummins. Ursula K. Le Guin: a Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston, G.K. Hall & Co., 1983.

De Bolt, Joe. Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space. Port Washington, New York, Kennikat Press, 1979.

Olander, Joseph D. and Martin Harry Greenberg, editors. Ursula K. LeGuin. New York, Taplinger, 1979.

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