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A Week to Remember: Ursula K. Le Guin

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
American novelist, Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin was born on October 21, 1929. Le Guin is best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, but she also wrote literary criticism, essays, and poetry, and she preferred to be identified simply as “an American novelist.”

Her parents were famous figures in their own right. Alfred Kroeber was an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, best known for his work in the 1910s with Ishi, who was believed to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe; Theodora Kroeber wrote about that work in the 1961 book Ishi in Two Worlds (e-audio | print).

Le Guin read widely as a child. She was fond of Norse myths, and of the Native American stories her father told her; she also read science fiction stories in some of the genre’s early pulp magazines. She submitted a story to Astounding Science Fiction at the age of 11; it was rejected.

Le Guin received her bachelor’s degree in 1951, and a Master’s degree in French in 1952. She received a Fulbright grant for the 1953-54 school year to continue studying towards her PhD in France. While traveling to France by ship, she met historian Charles Le Guin; they were married in Paris that December, and Le Guin ended her studies.

Her first novel, Rocannon’s World (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) was published in 1966, as part of the Ace Doubles series, in which two novels were published in one paperback; by the time of her third novel, a year later, she had already built enough name recognition to be published in a volume by herself.

These early novels were part of Le Guin’s Hainish series of stories and novels, a loosely linked series in which humanity arose not on Earth, but on the planet Hain; the stories take place on various worlds settled by the Hain, who are now attempting to link them into a single confederacy. The humans on the Hainish worlds have some unusual characteristics, thanks to Hainish experiments in genetic engineering.

The 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness (e-book | e-audio | print), another Hainish novel, was an enormous success, winning both of science fiction’s major awards—the Hugo, awarded by fans at the annual World Science Fiction Convention; and the Nebula, awards by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America—as the best novel of the year. It was the first time a woman had won either award.

The Left Hand of Darkness explored several themes to which Le Guin would return throughout her career. It is a sort of anthropological study; the narrator is from Earth, adapting to the unusual sexuality (sex and gender is another recurring theme for Le Guin) of the Gethen, who are ambisexual, becoming specifically male or female, whichever they choose, during their mating cycle.

At the same time that The Left Hand of Darkness took the science fiction world by storm, Le Guin was also having great success with A Wizard of Earthsea (e-book | e-audio | print), the first volume in another popular series. The Earthsea novels, set in a world where magic exists, are considered classics of modern children’s literature, though they are also often enjoyed by adults.

3 books by Ursula LeGuin

In 1974, Le Guin became the first author to twice win both the Hugo and Nebula for the same book, when The Dispossessed (e-book | e-audio | print) won both awards. It is a political novel, exploring the interactions among three very different political systems (another recurring theme in Le Guin’s writing) on two neighboring planets—a capitalist patriarchy, a totaliatiarian state, and an anarchist society.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Le Guin mostly wrote books for children and young adults. The Catwings series are picture books, illustrated by S. D. Schindler, about the adventures of flying kittens. Catwings (e-book | print | audio) is the first in the series.

Le Guin’s major work for adults during this period was the experimental novel Always Coming Home (e-book | print), which tells the story of the Kesh, people living in Northern California in a post-apocalyptic distant future. It is told as a mixture of anthropological field notes by an observer who seems to come from a culture more like our own; and documents and texts from the Kesh people—personal stories, texts of Kesh plays and songs, myths, and legends. Some editions of the book came with a recording of Kesh songs and poetry.

Le Guin returned to the world of Earthsea in 1990 with Tehanu (e-book | e-audio | print). It reflected the increasing feminism and social changes since the last Earthsea book in 1972; in some ways, Le Guin was criticizing her own earlier work, asking why women were not allowed to be wizards and were limited to so narrow a set of social roles. Tehanu was Le Guin’s third Nebula-winning Best Novel; she won a fourth—a record for a single author—for the 2007 YA novel Powers (e-book | print).

After thirty years as one of the most respected authors in science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin began to receive honors for her career. She was given the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 1995; inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001, and named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2003.

Unusually for a genre writer, Le Guin’s work has also been acknowledged by the larger literary world. As science fiction author and critic Jo Walton wrote in her obituary for Le Guin, she was “so good that the mainstream couldn’t dismiss SF anymore.” Le Guin was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000, and received the American Library Association’s Margaret Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young adult writing in 2004. And in 2016, she became one of the few living authors, and one of even fewer science fiction writers, to be honored with inclusion in the Library of America.

Le Guin published her last novel, Lavinia (e-book | print | audio), in 2008; it tells the life story of a minor character from Virgil’s Aeneid. She devoted the last decade of her life to writing essays, literary criticism, and poetry.

Le Guin’s Earthsea stories were twice adapted for film. The Sci Fi Channel (now known as Syfy) produced a 2-part miniseries called Earthsea in 2004; Le Guin found it disappointing, especially in its casting of white actors to play characters who her books had specifically identified as people of color. Japanese animator Goro Miyazaki’s 2006 Tales from Earthsea was more to her liking, though she did object to the amount of physical violence.

Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, after several months of ill health. Authors from within the science fiction world—Jo Walton, Neil Gaiman, Algis Budrys—and outside it—Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood—acknowledged her influence on their own work. She was one of the most honored authors in science fiction history, winning eight Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards.

Also This Week

October 22 (or 23?), 1844

Sarah Bernhardt was born. Bernhardt was a French theatrical actress; at the height of her career, she was embarking on a new world tour every few years. She performed until just a few months before her death at the age of 78, even after having a leg amputated in 1915. Bernhardt was one of the first actresses to appear in motion pictures, filming a two-minute scene from Hamlet in 1900. Peter Rader’s biography Playing to the Gods (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) focuses on Bernhardt’s rivalry with Italian actress Eleonora Duse.

October 25, 1889

Abel Gance was born. Gance was a pioneering French director of silent fims, among the first to use editing and filming techniques that are now standard—split-screen images, tracking shots, rapid cuts from image to image. Two of his most acclaimed films are available for streaming at Kanopy. The 1919 war film J’accuse includes scenes filmed on actual World War I battlefields. La Roue, a 1923 drama about a single father and the orphaned child he raises, was almost nine hours long in its initial release; the restored version is only about 4 ½ hours.

October 24, 1929

George Crumb was born. Crumb is a composer whose music calls for novel and unexpected sounds from traditional instruments; his scores frequently rely on unorthodox techniques of notation. Crumb recieved the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Echoes of Time and the River, and the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for Star-Child; those orchestral works can both be found here, and more of Crumb’s music is available for streaming or download at Freegal.

October 21, 1959

Ken Watanabe was born. Watanabe is one of Japan’s most acclaimed actors, a six-name nominee (and two-time winner) of the Japan Academy Prize. He was nominated for the Academy Award for his first American film role, in 2003’s The Last Samurai, and recieved a Tony nomination for his first Broadway appearance, in a revival of The King and I. Watanabe stars with Matthew McConaughey in Gus Van Sant’s 2015 mystery The Sea of Trees.