Ursula LeGuin

I fell in love with you in the way the best loves happen—that is, almost entirely by accident.

We were living in England while my mother worked with the US Air Force; I was in 6th grade. Every day, we had one glorious hour of our class schedule devoted entirely to silent reading time, and my teacher for that period—an older, slightly acerbic, presumably rather feminist Gifted and Talented teacher—bore a certain fondness for giving individual students books she thought they should read. And by “give”, I mean “unceremoniously hand you a book and unequivocally state that you were not allowed to read anything else in class until you finished it.”

It was through that method that I was first introduced to A Wizard of Earthsea.

As a moderately imaginative and somewhat well-read child, I had read plenty of fantasy books before. When I opened the Earthsea cycle for the first time, though, I knew on some level that this was a game-changer. The vividness of the description, the completeness and utter uniqueness of the worldbuilding, and all the dragons and birds of prey and colorful wizardry drew me in. The complexity of the characters, the sheer vast scope of the fantasy, and the tender poignancy of the storytelling hooked me and wouldn’t let me go.

I sat on the bus to school every morning on our trip across the fens, looking out the window at the dense, rolling British fog, and it was as if I was on Lookfar with Ged in the distant sea looking out, and out, and out. One night I dreamed, vividly, that standing in a field I put up my arm in the air and felt the light beating weight of a kestrel backwinging down to my skin—the most fragile, hollow pressure.

Fantasy and science fiction had already given me a broader perspective, new ways to look at things. Your writing was more than that—you gave me news eyes entirely through which to see.

For those reading who do not know—Ursula K Le Guin is almost indisputably one of the most prolific and most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writers still living. She has won almost every major award possible in both genres, and over the course of dozens of years has written dozens of works ranging from poetry and essays to children’s books and not-so-childish novels. She is the daughter of a writer (Theodora Kroeber) and well-known anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and it shows. Her work is known not only for its enthralling worldbuilding and attention to detail, but perhaps more vitally for its incorporation of a subtle, tender, seeping sense of humanity. This is a writer who knows people, intimately; no matter how far-flung the universes she describes or how fantastical the species that inhabit them, her writing is pervaded by the sense that perhaps you aren’t so far from home after all. When I think of speculative fiction, when I think of science fiction and fantasy, I think of Ursula Le Guin before anyone else.

Ursula, I continued on and read some of your short stories after Earthsea—the tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly moving anthology Changing Planes (whose premise is that you can only switch dimensions while sitting in the interminable boredom of an airport waiting room), the clever and more serious pieces in The Birthday of the World and The Compass Rose. Short stories are, I think, where your brilliance really shines. They’re where your anthropological and sociological musings really take wing; many of them read as thought experiments—“in this world, what if there were humans but X was different about them?”

In The Matter of Seggri, men are incredibly rare and treated with a smothering, oppressive kind of nurture familiar to any modern woman. In The Fliers of Gy, some people are born with wings—the most quintessential of widespread human fantasies—but the frailty of their bodies and their maladaption to their own culture make it a tragedy and a horrifying curse rather than something to be coveted. In Unchosen Ways and Mountain Love, lovers navigate achingly familiar pains of love and loss and family rivalry in a society where marriage literally takes a village (or a moiety, more accurately). In each, you play so deftly deftly with race, gender, and sexuality, constantly and gently nudging us out of our most fundamental assumptions of what it is to experience each of those things by skillfully framing it in ways that don’t even feel like a lesson so much as a matter of fact “but it’s always been this . I grew up to be an anthropologist, like your father (and, in a very real sense I think, like you), and I think I know where that process started. You slowly, patiently, painstakingly taught me from afar one of the cornerstones of both speculative fiction and anthropology—learning to see the peculiar as normal and the normal as peculiar.

I also saw myself in your characters, both in the individual sense and in ways slightly more broad. Most of your protagonists are non-white and non-heterosexual, or at least play with the notion of what those designations even mean; plenty of them are non-male or non-binary-gender or both or neither or all genders and sexes at once. That was something that comforted me in an unprecedented way both as a young multiracial person and as a young, burgeoningly genderqueer and transgender person. I will admit—I regret to say that I didn’t read your most-lauded novelized study of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness, until relatively later in life, and was rather un-compelled by it. The notion that someone can be more than one sex or gender at once, and be loved by somebody not used to that concept, is perhaps a bit more underwhelming to read about when you’ve lived with it for a decade or two…But I read Coming of Age in Karhide, also set in Gethen, and loved it, felt myself coming of age into my gender a bit with every dreamy vivid line of it. I think for a lot of people, your works are the first time they’ve been exposed to some of these ideas in a digestible and slightly depoliticized way, and I can only imagine how much easier my life has been rendered because of that, through that behind the scenes absorption. (I am slightly tired, however, of having strangers tell me that I remind them of Gethenians.)
My favorite work by you, however, is the one I can barely begin to do justice to.

The Dispossessed has been (at least to me) shockingly divisive within my friend groups. Roughly half the people I’ve recommended it to have loved it so unconditionally that they took it as one of their own new personal favorites; the other half has hated it and thought it dull and uninteresting to the point of inanity. Regardless, I can cheerfully and blithely state that I have never read a book I enjoyed more purely, or that I found more in. I come back to The Dispossessed again and again and again—I read it for comfort during trying times, in moments when I worry that I’ve lost my way or my sense of self. I’ve been recording myself reading lines of it as I’ve gone on testosterone and my voice has been dropping, documenting the growth and change in more ways than one. The clean starkness of the world of Anarres and (at least initially) its inhabitants, the thoughtfulness and nuances of the political commentary…It starts on one level as a fairly straightforward conversation about anarchy, socialism, capitalism, and socioeconomic woe, but grows over time to be a much more convoluted dialogue on the nature of individualism, the inescapability of solitude, and the endless search we all of us make for that ephemeral, at times unreachable thing—home, and purpose, the sense that there is somewhere we belong.

I read Shevek’s story and feel the pang of sympathy for him a little bit differently every time. In high school, as a sense of camaraderie for someone reaching desperately for a goal that would make or break him by its attainment or his failure. In college, I resonated with his intensely personal realizations about utopia and revolution, of the ways people frequently recreate the things they fear or hate the most. After college, I’ve come to see the cleverness of his characterization, his flaws and egocentricities and anxieties, and search for how my own flaws shape my perception. Every year or two I come back to this book, these immortal settings and characters, and the sheer beauty and gracefulness of the multilayered arcs of the story takes my breath away. Futility and joy and arrogance and humility and camaraderie and isolation and breathless, breathless hope…

Nobody writes imperfection as perfectly and as compassionately as you do, with such a gentle and loving acceptance for both the beauty and monstrosity inherent to being human. You hold a mirror up to me, and of all the mirrors I’ve ever seen—I’m ok with looking into this one, and with the reflection I see in it.

Thank you, Ursula, for what you have given me—the gift, for once and forever, of sight.”

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One thought on “Ursula LeGuin

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I guess what was most compelling to me about The Left Hand of Darkness was the rewriting of legend, and the ruminations on how legend and mythology might be different. So, beyond simple explorations of gender, she explored how it might intellectually buttress a society… I loved it.

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