Ursula K Le Guin, acclaimed fantasy and science fiction writer, is dead at 88

Several of the author’s books have been in print for almost 50 years

Author Ursula K Le Guin speaking at the University of Oregon in 2014. Photograph: Jack Liu via The New York Times

Author Ursula K Le Guin speaking at the University of Oregon in 2014. Photograph: Jack Liu via The New York Times


Ursula K Le Guin, the immensely popular author who brought literary depth and a tough-minded feminist sensibility to science fiction and fantasy with books such as The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea series, died Monday at her home in Portland, Oregon. She was 88.

Her son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, confirmed the death. He did not specify a cause but said she had been in poor health for several months.

Le Guin embraced the standard themes of her chosen genres: sorcery and dragons, spaceships and planetary conflict. But even when her protagonists are male, they avoid the macho posturing of so many science fiction and fantasy heroes. The conflicts they face are typically rooted in a clash of cultures and resolved more by conciliation and self-sacrifice than by swordplay or space battles.

Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Several, including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), have been in print for almost 50 years. Critic Harold Bloom lauded Le Guin as “a superbly imaginative creator and major stylist” who “has raised fantasy into high literature for our time.”

In addition to more than 20 novels, she was the author of a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories (collected in multiple volumes), seven collections of essays, 13 books for children and five volumes of translation, including the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu and selected poems by Chilean Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral. She also wrote a guide for writers.

Fiction to fables

Le Guin’s fiction ranges from young-adult adventures to wry philosophical fables. They combine compelling stories, rigorous narrative logic, and a lean but lyrical style to draw readers into what she called the “inner lands” of the imagination. Such writing, she believed, could be a moral force.

“If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly,” she told The Guardian in an interview in 2005. “Little kids can’t do it; babies are morally monsters — completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy.”

The writer’s “pleasant duty,” she said, is to ply the reader’s imagination with “the best and purest nourishment that it can absorb.”

She was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California on October 21st, 1929, the youngest of four children and the only daughter of two anthropologists, Alfred L Kroeber and Theodora Quinn Kroeber. Her father was an expert on the Native Americans of California, and her mother wrote the acclaimed Ishi in Two Worlds (1960) about the life and death of California’s “last wild Indian.”

At a young age, Le Guin immersed herself in books about mythology, among them James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, classic fantasies such as Lord Dunsany’s A Dreamer’s Tales, and the science-fiction magazines of the day. But in early adolescence she lost interest in science fiction, because, she recalled, the stories “seemed to be all about hardware and soldiers: White men go forth and conquer the universe.”

Ursula K Le Guin in an undated publicity photo. Photograph: Marian Wood Kolisch via The New York Times
Ursula K Le Guin in an undated publicity photo. Photograph: Marian Wood Kolisch via The New York Times

Education and family

She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, earned a master’s degree in romance literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance from Columbia University in 1952, and won a Fulbright fellowship to study in Paris. There she met and married another Fulbright scholar, Charles Le Guin, who survives her.

On their return to the United States she abandoned her graduate studies to raise a family; the Le Guins eventually settled in Portland where Charles Le Guin taught history at Portland State University.

Besides her husband and son, Ursula Le Guin is survived by two daughters, Caroline and Elisabeth Le Guin; two brothers, Theodore and Clifton Kroeber; and four grandchildren.

By the early 1960s Le Guin had written five unpublished novels, mostly set in an imaginary Central European country called Orsinia. Eager to find a more welcoming market, she decided to try her hand at genre fiction.

Her first science-fiction novel Rocannon’s World came out in 1966. Two years later she published A Wizard of Earthsea, the first in a series about a made-up world where the practice of magic is as precise as any science, and as morally ambiguous.

The first three Earthsea books — the other two were The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972) — were written, at the request of her publisher, for young adults. But their grand scale and elevated style betray no trace of writing down to an audience.

The Earthsea series was clearly influenced by JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but instead of a holy war between good and evil, Le Guin’s stories are organized around a search for “balance” among competing forces — a concept she adapted from her lifelong study of Taoist texts.

She returned to Earthsea later in her career, extending and deepening the trilogy with books such as Tehanu (1990) and The Other Wind (2001), written for a general audience.

‘Anthropological dispassion’

The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on planet Gethen where people are neither male nor female but assume the attributes of either sex during brief periods of reproductive fervor. Speaking with an anthropological dispassion, Le Guin later referred to her novel as a “thought experiment” designed to explore the nature of human societies.

“I eliminated gender to find out what was left,” she told The Guardian.

But there is nothing dispassionate about the relationship at the core of the book, between an androgynous native of Gethen and a human male from Earth. The book won the two major prizes in science fiction, the Hugo and Nebula awards, and is widely taught in secondary schools and colleges.

Le Guin always considered herself a feminist, even when genre conventions led her to centre her books on male heroes. Her later works, like the additions to the Earthsea series and such Ekumen tales as Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) and The Telling (2000), are mostly told from a female point of view.

In some later books she gave in to a tendency toward didacticism as if she were losing patience with humanity for not learning the hard lessons — about the need for balance and compassion — that her best work so astutely embodies.

At the 2014 National Book Awards, Le Guin was given the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She accepted the medal on behalf of her fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction, who, she said, had been “excluded from literature for so long” while literary honours went to the “so-called realists.”

She also urged publishers and writers not to put too much emphasis on profits.

“I have had a long career and a good one,” she said, adding: “Here at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river.” – New York Times News Service