January 25, 2018
Hail and Farewell: Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018
by Dylan Soltis
Ursula K. Le Guin, beloved novelist, poet, essayist, and thinker, passed away this week at eighty-eight.
A pioneer in the science fiction and fantasy genres, Le Guin challenged society’s presuppositions by confronting her readers with the limitless potential of human life. From the glacial planet Gethen to the Dionysian city of Omelas, the worlds she created defied easy concepts of dys- and utopia, encouraging us instead to think critically about our own planet, its future, and the new ways of being that future may reveal to us.
Le Guin wasn’t only a writer, but an activist as well. In the wake of her passing, social media has been alight with remembrances of her most inspiring moments, from her electrifying acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, in which she spoke out against the rampant commodification of books, to a 1987 letter in which she refuses to provide a blurb for an exclusively male sci-fi anthology.
Originally from Berkeley, California, Le Guin was the author of more than fifty books, and was a repeat winner of all the major science fiction and fantasy awards, including the Hugo (twice), the Nebula (four times), the Locus (five times), and the World Fantasy Award. In 1972, she won the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore. In 1997, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Unlocking the Air and Other Stories. In 2001, she was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. In 2003, she became the first woman to be named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
At MobyLives, where she has many heartbroken fans, we’ve written about Le Guin a lot. Most recently, after the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, we recounted the story of how Le Guin, asked to publish her work in the magazine as “UK Le Guin” to conceal her gender, wrote in her author bio that “It is commonly suspected that the writings of UK Le Guin are not actually written by UK Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.”
Earlier last year, we wrote about her totally bad-ass response to hearing her fiction called out as a form of “alternative facts” in her local paper, the Oregonian. “To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or ‘alternative fact’) is a lie,” she wrote, with characteristic, pungent directness.
We’ve written about her many other times, too — about her joining the legal struggle against Google Books, about her clapping luminously back at then-not-yet-Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro when he diminutivized “fantasy” in describing anxieties about the reception of his book The Buried Giant, about the tidal wave of funding that came pouring in for a documentary about her life, about the hot demand for seats in one of her writing workshops. We’ve also wished her happy birthdays, when we could.
Though she leaves behind a vast body of work, her passing weighs especially heavy given the strange historical juncture at which it finds us. Still, we can take this time as an opportunity not only to celebrate her life and work, but to encourage others to pick up her writing, read her stories, and explore the worlds she created for us.
For me, her writing has served as a constant reminder that a better world is possible, in forms we have barely begun to imagine.
We’ll have more to say as we continue processing this loss. For now, may the memory of her life always be a blessing.
Dylan Soltis is the former manager of direct sales at Melville House.