The Le Guin Legacy

Ursula K Le Guin

Suneetha Balakrishnan

The one-and-only Ursula K Le Guin has moved on.

She joined the powers of the universe at age 88, from her house in Portland, Oregon, on 22nd January, 2018. She was one of the literary icons of the 20th century and a veritable colossus who redrew the boundaries of literature. She brought literary profundity and a resolute feminist sensibility to the genre of science fiction and fantasy with books like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and the Earthsea series.

Ursula K Le Guin never won the Nobel Prize, but she was much-honoured with awards, and was one of the less-than-half-a-dozen women to win the lifetime achievement Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. She also inspired an entire generation of writers. The women were inspired by this pioneering feminist to believe in themselves and the stories they wanted to tell. The men derived from her an impetus to experiment more with forms and styles and themes, much beyond the limitations of what passed then as fantasy and speculative fiction. The trails she blazed opened up new horizons to many in both reading and writing. And she remained sharp to the world around her till her last.

Her family says she was writing till her last days.  The media reports her son saying this about her as he confirmed her passing. “She told me a few days ago she felt a little guilty because she was just writing for her own pleasure now.”

As Margaret Atwood points out in her obituary note published in the Guardian, Le Guin was born in 1929, and that meant her childhood was during the Great Depression. She spent her teenage during World War II. She was in University just after the war. The status of the humans therefore, especially women, as mere tools in the hands of the politically and socially powerful, must have affected her writing sensibilities quite early. She went on to create worlds which sought to write out her ‘thought-societies’. Says Atwood, ‘in all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer’.

Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence of stories is regarded as a classic of fantasy and children’s literature and influenced many a writer who came after her. The first of these is the short story The Word of Unbinding” published in the January 1964.  The Wizard of Earth Sea, a series of which includes this story, appeared in 1968, first published by the small press Parnassus in 1968.

The story is set in the fictional archipelago of Earthsea, hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly unexplored ocean; and centres around a young village boy magician named Ged, born on the island of Gont. He displays immense influence while still a boy and joins the school of wizardry, where his barbed temperament drives him into clash with one of his fellows. During a magical combat, Ged’s magic charm goes twisted and releases a shadow creature that attacks him. The narrative follows his voyage as he seeks to be liberated of that being. The book explores Ged’s process of learning to handle power and come to terms with death. Harry Potter, anyone? I also thought of The Tempest.

The Left Hand of Darkness is Ursula’s science fiction novel located on a planet where residents only presume the attributes of a gender in order to have children. This novel came out the year after the Earthsea sequence.  In the 1970s, she put out a sequence of pioneering science fiction novels including The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven.

Le Guin has written more than 50 books, spanning poetry, criticism, short stories and also translation. She was named winner of the World Fantasy award for lifetime achievement, and in 2014, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The citation here mentions how for over “more than 40 years, [she] has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, as well as transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism, to forge new paths for literary fiction”. Le Guin in her response said she would share the honour with her fellow science fiction and fantasy authors, “the writers who were excluded from literature for so long … who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists”.

Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin was also a fearless campaigner for the causes she believed in with all her heart. In 1987, she refused to write a blurb for a an anthology containing no writing by women, saying “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.” Her battles against Amazon and Google on digital settlements and copyright issues have been bold and from the front ranks.

Rest in Power, dear icon. And do communicate to us earthlings what the universe really looks like.

Adieu.

Tailpiece: In case you have not yet been initiated into the Le Guin legacy and wondering where to start, here’s a guide.

(Suneetha Balakrishnan is a bilingual translator, writer and journalist from Kerala. She can be reached at suneethabalakrishnan@gmail.com )

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