This world in words, in other worlds: Ursula K Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula K Le Guin’s powerful imagination gave us whole new worlds with strange, invented people and creatures. Photo: Angelo Fick

The death of an old woman is not a tragedy.  However, in the case of Ursula K Le Guin, who died after a long life and months of illness, the sense of loss is not diminished by her passing having been expected for some time.

She invented other worlds, places which alienated us from the quotidian elements of our own existence.  Ursula Kroeber Le Guin’s powerful imagination gave us whole new worlds with strange, invented people and creatures.  The places she made up were populated by sea-faring wizards and their pupils, by talking dragons, and by people who were not bound by the binary gender regime of human world she wrote for.

My first encounter with Le Guin came in my teens.  The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) presented an icy world, Gethen, where the human beings were neither male nor female, but capable of expressing themselves in the biological forms of both, depending on circumstances.  It was a mind-blowing analysis of and reflection on the gendered division of labour in the societies of Earth.  The experience of reading about ‘kemmer’ was life-changing.

Many people experienced Le Guin’s work in this way.  A major South African historian who is also an activist for the rights of South Africa’s indigenous Khoi declared her sense of loss by reflecting on the role The Dispossessed (1974) played in conscientising her to human rights-based politics.  A photographer friend was also aghast at the death of this writer whose work defined more than a genre for much of the last half-century.

Margaret Atwood signalled her immense sadness on learning of Le Guin’s passing.  She was more than a writer of fantasy and science fiction, more than an essayist and poet.  Le Guin was a formidable intellectual who looked at the world and our relationship with it differently.  She interrogated that which was taken for granted and wrote compelling stories which young and old found addictive.  The Earthsea Quartet remains a favourite with people of all ages.

Her characters were often misfits, people relegated to the sidelines of their worlds, and as such, capable of insights into the workings and abuses of power by those in positions of authority.  She was a writer whose work was set outside of her own time and place, but whose creative eye was firmly focused on the dynamics of that world.  Even in the cautionary ecological fable The Word for the World is Forest (1971), she prefigures the concern with the ecological crisis which has now all but overwhelmed our fragile existence on this tiny blue marble in space.

She took women seriously and had begun doing so even when it was not fashionable, and her books reflect this.  But she also took the relationship between men and women seriously.  Her oeuvre transcended the generic limits of the publishing world.  Even though she was dismissed by some as a ‘sci-fi’ or fantasy specialist, the philosophical import of her writing could not be denied.  She confronted her readers with difficult questions even as she amused and thrilled them with exquisite story-telling.

No tribute can be adequate to the genius of Le Guin.  It is enough to admit that many of us are better for having read her.  Her passing casts a shadow over our present as we mourn, but we will hopefully find comfort in revisiting or discovering for the first time the formidable body of work she has left us.  Readers of Le Guin’s books will find her always coming home.

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