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Ursula Le Guin: A Creator of Worlds

John Tarleton Jan 24

Issue 232

With her ability to conjure up whole new worlds that challenge how we see our own and to inhabit them with deeply human characters, she was one of the great radical fiction writers of our time.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin — daughter of a famous anthropologist and a writer, genre-busting author of more than 20 novels, volumes of poetry and translations, hundreds of short stories and numerous children’s books — died, Jan. 22 in Portland, Oregon at the age of 88.

Her 1974 classic The Dispossessed begins, “There was a wall.” But Le Guin implored readers to gaze beyond walls; past the constraints of our present and into the possibilities that emerge when our barriers drop, to image new futures. These days, when those in power are obsessed with borders and walls and returning the world to a stultified past, her work is more relevant than ever.

Here are a few of the highlights:

The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969): Long before discussion of gender fluidity entered the mainstream, Le Guin wrote this groundbreaking work of feminist science fiction.

Set on Gethen, a wintery planet whose “ambisexual” inhabitants can change gender from month to month, Left Hand follows the evolving views of an intergalactic envoy whose conventional outlook on gender is challenged by the Gethenians he encounters. The book’s most famous line: “The king was pregnant.”

Illustration by Emily Gage.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (1973): In what is perhaps the most well known of Le Guin’s short stories, the prosperous citizens of Omelas enjoy the good life. But it comes with a fateful bargain — they must accept the perpetual torment of a small child locked in a squalid closet who cannot be assisted or comforted or allowed to see the light of day. As the youth of Omelas come of age, they are each brought face-to-face with the child. If they can accept what they have seen or rationalize it away, they can remain in Omelas and continue their comfortable lives. For the rebels who can’t bury their consciences, they have no choice but to leave Omelas, each in search of a place in the world they can call home.

The Dispossessed (1974): Which would you prefer? To live on Urras, an Earthlike world abundant in wealth and natural resources yet plagued by brutal hierarchies of privilege? Or Annares, a barren lunar wasteland where a colony of anarchist settlers have abolished private property, government, armies, laws, police, courts, prisons and possessive pronouns and made human solidarity the norm?

In this work, Le Guin accomplishes a rare literary feat — bringing to life a nuanced and richly imagined utopian society — while juxtaposing the two rival worlds through the story of Shevek, a brilliant Anarresti physicist and a committed anarchist who eventually tires of the groupthink of his own society. Seeking new scientific knowledge and understanding, he becomes the first member of his world to ever return to the mother planet of Urras. The rituals and behaviors that are considered normal under capitalism have never seemed stranger than when viewed through the eyes of this baffled visitor. When his journey ignites uprisings on both Urras and Anarres, Shevek must weigh his own values and act.

The Day Before The Revolution (1974): Set 170 years before the events described in The Dispossessed, this is a tender short story about growing old and dying. It describes the final day in the life of Laia Asieo Odo, an aging revolutionary icon whose writings will inspire the uprising that leads to the founding of Anarres. While the movement she has given her life to races toward a decisive general strike, Odo’s thoughts drift through a labyrinth of memories. The story’s rueful final sentence will make you sit up straight and ask yourself an important question.

The Earthsea Series (1968-2001): A boy wizard trains at a school for magic and goes forth to vanquish the evil that threatens the land. Long before the Harry Potter juggernaut came along, Le Guin’s six-part Earthsea series delivered coming of age adventures that crackle with mystery and wonder. Along the way, she spurred the imagination of millions of tweens and teens, and gave adult readers plenty to think about as well.

Rest in freedom, Ursula.

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Illustration by Emily Gage.

This article has been updated and expanded for the February print edition of The Indypendent.