Ursula K. Le Guin was an influential writer and advocate for the progression of science fiction and fantasy into the realms of mainstream literature. She was also a strong advocate for female writers and did what she could to promote equity in publishing. Needless to say, she was a strong-minded and socially aware individual and she has been praised and criticized for these very reasons. To me, she is an inspiration and encourages me to improve myself.
I hate to say I have only recently discovered Le Guin, but what I have read so far has already impacted my own views of writing and the field of writing. I can’t recall when I first discovered who she was (I believe I discovered her from Neil Gaiman), but I do remember when I read her work for the first time. It was The Left Hand of Darkness and I finished it roughly two years ago. She died three weeks later on January 22nd, 2018. I have since read a collection of non-fiction The Language of the Night and watched a documentary titled The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.* The documentary was well-one and worth the watch.
Within The Language of the Night, Le Guin discusses much of what the world of science fiction looked like from a writer’s perspective during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was at this time when the publication of science fiction and fantasy was changing. These two genres, which are often paired together, were looked down upon as a secondary form of writing or considered childish stories. There were a lot of terrible stories written during the first half the 20th century (and the second half as well), but something happened during the second half which changed societies views about these topics. I believe J.R.R. Tolkien was a big influence (mainly on the view of fantasy as a legitimate form of storytelling) primarily with his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” These areas of entertainment still face some resistance today but it is hard to deny that stories written within the classification of either genre are influential and have merit. This is not just because they are extremely popular across the globe, but because they are lasting.
Yes, we are lucky because most of the not-so-great science fiction and fantasy stories written in the 1900’s have been culled by time thus leaving us with the better stories still standing, but there are some hidden gems still out there and I hope they do not fall into obscurity or disappear altogether. I don’t believe Le Guin’s works are at any risk of disappearing. I still need to read many of her books, but the one’s I hear most about are her Earthsea series and the Hainish Cycle (this later series consists of standalone novels and includes The Left Hand of Darkness). My lovely wife bought me the illustrated Earthsea series for our one-year anniversary. I hope to read it this year.
Le Guin is known as one of many essential science fiction authors. She was advocating for the field around the time that these types of books were first being taught in schools. Many people today, myself included, grew up reading fantasy and science fiction in school alongside the other “classic” books. I read The Hobbit in middle school and again in high school (though I had already read it before it was “required”). I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school and loved it. Science fiction and fantasy have become part of the norm. They remain popular and are growing fields. At the time Le Guin was becoming a popular writer of these genres, it was a somewhat niche field. She wanted it to grow and grow it did. In the 1970’s, Le Guin stated that only 1 in 30 writers of science fiction were female. She was a rarity. She worked to encourage women writers and urged them to resist the use of male pseudonyms which was still common at that time. I’m glad that the times have changed and the world of writing is more inclusive than the past, but we still have a ways to go. I, like Le Guin, will advocate however I can to promote diversity and inclusion in all areas of life.
Though many readers believe her work can be a little too political, primarily her non-fiction, I find it mostly reassuring and encouraging. Her writing was her form of learning her social environment and saying what she wanted to say. She wrote stories of worlds where certain aspects of our society were dismissed or exaggerated in order to explore what those fictional societies would look like. This is what I believe makes them so interesting to read. Many of the aspects she writes about are still very much relevant today, nearly fifty years later, and will likely remain for a long time. I think her writing will endure because most of her stories are simply other worlds we can enjoy. Oftentimes they are, but they still hold a gem which we can either discover or ignore depending on what we want from the book. That gem is much like a flag to be raised toward a cause we may wish to stand behind.
Le Guin has influenced many writers who are popular today. I hope she continues to influence writers and others, much like she has influenced me. I may not love all of her works, but I will respect her for who she was and what she believed. Her words survive her and will continue to influence the world to persevere and improve itself. That is the best that any writer can hope for.
*Link was available at the time of writing. If the link is unavailable, I recommend searching the web or checking your local library for a copy of this film.