Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

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Ola: One of the best fantasy and science fiction writers ever, although she didn’t like that label and preferred to be called a novelist and a poet. A daughter of the famous cultural anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, who documented the vanishing lifestyles of West Coast Native Americans, Le Guin always put the focus of her novels on people and their varied ways of living.

As she said in an interview with John Wray in 2013 for The Paris Review,

The “hard”–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.

Piotrek: She was the social scientist’s fantasy writer, just as Tolkien was an heir to the rich tradition of philology and traditional study of myths. Politically not neutral, never shying away from important issues of race, feminism and other forms of inequality. Full of passion, but also smart and well-read in theory. Wise and compassionate.

In literary disputes, she was a staunch defender of what we call genre fiction. I’ve mentioned it before, but let me quote from her Guardian interview from 2016:

Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continue to give us lots of great fiction. But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration

She wrote reviews for Guardian, including one of Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, and she was harsher than Ola!

Le Guin was chosen, while alive – a rare honour – to a very special hall of fame. Library of America started publishing her works, and the first one was very special, if not the most famous. The Complete Orsinia collection that includes a novel, short stories and a few poems. Taking place in fictional central European country of Orsinia, realistically depicts the fate of people and cultures from our part of the world from the late XIX to the mid-XX century. And Orsinia is not Sokovia, it’s a great portrayal of this troubled part of Europe, must have been preceded by a good deal of research.

Ola: Her most known – and widely considered best – novels are A Wizard of Earthsea, a coming of age fantasy story set in a fictional world of Earthsea, heavily influenced by Tolkien, the Jungian concept of Shadow and the Taoist principles of balance, and The Left Hand of Darkness, a sf novel depicting a society in which gender is completely unimportant and inexistent for most of the time. She wrote dozens of novels and over a hundred short stories, as well as poetry collections. She never shied from difficult themes, such as inequalities, environmental problems, issues of gender and culture, and social identity. Le Guin was an astute social critic, a lyrical builder of visionary worlds, a knowledgeable teacher of subtleties of anthropology and philosophy, but first and foremost – a master storyteller.

 

 

Beautiful Folio Society edition does not commit the sin of whitewashing, sin that drew her ire in altogether weak Earthsea miniseries from 2005.

Ola: I very much enjoyed and admired the Hainish Cycle, a bold and thoughtful vision of possible human futures and a constructive social critique, but also an intriguing rendering of what observation in social anthropology should look like. Still, A Wizard of Earthsea remains my personal favorite: a novel of few words, each carefully chosen, poetic and sparse, simply written but touching upon extremely complex themes, unfolding slowly and yet incredibly moving, bringing to mind old myths and magical tales. As Bormgans succinctly put it in his insightful review of A Wizard of Earthsea,

The protagonist, Ged, or Sparrowhawk, learns not to act unless absolutely necessary. It seems Le Guin had already mastered that principle when writing: nothing in this book is superfluous.

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Piotrek: Yes! The Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, the Hainish Cycle. The last one very influential, without it we would not have neither Iain M. Banks nor Jarosław Grzędowicz. News of Le Guin’s passing inspired tributes from Gaiman, King, Mitchell, Kay, Mieville and others. Guardian published Margaret Atwood’s farewell, and it is a very moving one, stating at the beginning that Le Guin was (yes, from now on, while the books live, their author will be described in past tense…) one of the literary greats of the 20th century, and then moving to her works’ relevance in the world of today. Read it.

She was perhaps not as great a poet as she was a writer, but let me quote one of her poems from 2016 collection, Late in The Day:

Since keeping house and raising kids

don’t count as jobs, I only ever had one.

I started out as a prentice

at five years old, and at near eighty-five

in most ways I still am one,

being a slow learner. And the work

is quite demanding.

The boss who drives the shiny yellow car

and those nine sisters up there by the spring

are tough, but fair. There’s times

you can’t get them to listen,

but they’ve always got their eye on you.

They don’t let botched work pass.

Sometimes the pay is terrible.

Sometimes it’s only fairy gold.

Then again sometimes the wages

are beyond imagination and desire.

I am glad to have worked for this company.

Ursula Le Guin was 88, and perhaps her death is not as tragic as Pratchett’s untimely passing. Hers was a complete life, despite hardships, both happy and accomplished. Still, we are all diminished by her absence. For me, she was the last of the Gods of fantasy, founding parents of my favourite kind of literature.

5 thoughts on “Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

  1. I must find the old notes I did of the Orsinia short stories for a review that I never completed, and then finally tackle Malafrena! I’ve really admired all the stuff of hers I’ve read, even the difficult stuff (got halfway through Changing Planes before (if you’ll pardon the aircraft analogy) stalling, though ‘enjoying’ is not the word I’d use for all of it.

    It’s high time I revisited Earthsea (for what’s the third time in the case of the quartet) to remind myself how bittersweet her writing is. Then it’ll be back to Ekumen and those peopled worlds I still have to explore.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s always a good time to read Le Guin 🙂 I deeply admire the whole Earthsea series, even though “A Wizard…” will always remain my favorite, but Ekumen is also very thought-provoking and worth a read. I haven’t read the Orsinia stories yet – that’s still ahead of me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, ‘Orsinian Tales’ are very haunting, melancholic even, and span a thousand years. I’d be very interested in your reaction to them, should you get round to reading the collection. You will of course know there’s a subtle pun on her name in the title, and maybe the implicit bear association suggests the tales have a slight Russian tinge, though I gather she thought of Orsinia as some Middle European polity.

      I’ve now restarted ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, and perhaps I’ll get through the first four books again before the end of 2018! Then maybe back to her SF stories …

      Liked by 1 person

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