There are few authors who can easily shift from one genre to another: Often, science fiction authors remain known as a science fiction authors for much of their careers, while fantasy authors remain fantasy authors. One of the notable exceptions is Ursula K. Le Guin, who, over the course of her decades-long career, has produced canonical works in each genre, often examining the impact of complex societies, stories and themes throughout each of her fantastic works.
Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber on October 21st, 1929, daughter of anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and writer Theodora Kroeber. She and her three siblings were encouraged to read, and Ursula became a fan of science fiction and fantasy at a young age, saving up for pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories. Through her father’s research and work, the family was visited often by individuals from around the world: Academics, refugees, people from a variety of cultures, provided Le Guin with an appreciation for “the Other,” a theme that would so frequently appear in her later works. She wrote her first fantasy story around the age of 9. She also read widely, consuming books such as Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows before discovering Lord Dunsany and, later, sci-fi stories by the likes of Isaac Asimov, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner and particularly Theodore Sturgeon and Cordwainer Smith. At age 11, she submitted a short story to Astounding Science Fiction, only to receive a rejection, though this didn’t discourage her. Le Guin went on to attend Berkeley High School. Among her classmates was another soon-to-be-famous science fiction author, Philip K. Dick. (However, the two didn't know one another at that point.)
After high school, Le Guin attended and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Renaissance French and Italian literature. A year later, she graduated with her Masters in French and Italian Literature from Columbia University. Continuing her studies toward a Ph.D., she met her future husband, Charles Le Guin, in 1953 during her travels to France. She eventually gave up her studies, and the pair married and returned to the United States, settling in Portland, Oregon, in 1959. She continued to read, and found that stories such as Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings demonstrated the full potential of what a science fiction or fantasy author could do.
Le Guin began writing seriously in the 1950s. In the span of decade, she wrote five novels, all of which were rejected. In one such case, she submitted a novel to a family friend, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, in 1952. He recognized the potential Le Guin exhibited, and encouraged her to continue to write stories. She spent years writing and submitting stories to various markets. Frustrated, she wrote a genre story, "April in Paris," which she sold to Fantastic Stories in 1962. It would be the first of several to appear in Fantastic Stories. "The Masters" appeared in February 1963, followed by "Darkness Box" in November. In 1964, Le Guin jumped to sister magazine Amazing Stories, with "The Dowry of Angyar" publishing in September.
By this time, Le Guin began work on a new novel. Rocannon's World was built from ideas first introduced in "The Dowry of Angyar," which was even used as the novel's prologue, renamed "Semley's Necklace." The short book blends fantasy and science fiction together as it follows Rocannon, a representative of the League of All Worlds, after he's shot down over the planet Fomalhaut II. An offworlder with advanced technology, he quickly gains a mythical status on the planet as he makes his way to an enemy base, where he can alert his government to his predicament. Le Guin sold the novel directly to Donald Wollheim, founder of Ace Books, a specialty paperback genre publisher.
Le Guin's first sci-fi novel was something of an experiment. She’d been a longtime reader of the genre, but had little experience actually creating it: "I didn't know yet that the science in my fiction was mostly going to be social science, psychology, anthropology, history, etc., and that I had to figure out how to use all that, and work hard at it too, because nobody else had done much along those lines. I took what came to hand, the FTL drive and the Bronze Age, and used them without much thinking on it, saving the courage of real invention for pure fantasies."
The book was published in 1966 as an Ace Double alongside The Kar-Chee Reign by Avram Davidson. The book is the first of Le Guin's Hanish stories, the introduction to a greater world in which she would create some of the genre's best known works. Editor Mike Ashley notes that Le Guin's rise is important because she doesn't "[Follow] the traditional Gernsback/Campbell road to science fiction. The worlds of all these writers [Vance, Smith, Disch, Zelazny] have their roots in the deeper myths and fables of storytellers and are therefore much closer to the mainstream fabulists than to the hardcore sci-fi writers."
Notably, Le Guin didn't emerge from organized Fandom as so many other science fiction authors had before, and indeed, Ashley notes that the editor who acquired many of Le Guin's early works, Cele Goldsmith, "was not fettered by past sci-fi requirements. She let it all hang loose, and let Amazing and Fantastic become a cauldron of experimentation, exploration and temptation." Le Guin notes that while she read science fiction, reading was only part of her education, and it seems that it was from this base level that she entered genre publishing: from a place that allowed for a considerable amount of experimentation without preconceived notions, and with the desire to tell stories that hadn’t been told.
Le Guin’s next novel followed soon after. She sold Planet of Exile to Wollheim, who published it in late 1966, alongside Mankind Under the Leash by Thomas M. Disch. In it, the marooned and troubled colony of Landin etches out an existence on the planet Werel. A long orbital period means a long winter ahead, and with it, a migration of a native species of humanoids, the Hilfs. The two groups have a strained relationship, but common struggles: the upcoming 15-year winter and the threat of outsiders called the Gaals. In her book of essays, The Language of the Night, Le Guin notes that she began to write Planet of Exile in 1963 and completed it in 1964, "before the reawakening of feminism from its 30-year paralysis. The book exhibits my 'natural' (i.e. happily acculturated, unawakened, unconsciousness-raised) way of handling male and female characters."
In 1967, she sold her third Hanish novel, City of Illusions, to Wollheim. The story takes place on Earth, long after an alien species broke the League of All Worlds and occupied the planet, dividing up the population. The novel attracted attention from one particular reader, Virginia Kidd, a long-standing member of the genre fan community and literary agent. She was impressed with the book and nominated it for a Nebula Award. Soon thereafter, Le Guin sold a new book to Ace, Left Hand of Darkness, but ran into problems selling the novel to a hardcover publisher. She wrote to Kidd, asking if she would represent the book. Kidd’s response was immediate: "Yes, I will handle it, but I want to represent all your work, not just some of it." Le Guin was now professionally represented by an agent, a relationship that would last until Kidd’s death in 2003. Kidd’s career is notable for her stable of authors, with a number of notable female authors under her care.
In an essay in Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion titled “The Literary Genealogy of Science Fiction and Ursula K. Le Guin,” the book's authors point out that Le Guin's entry into the science fiction genre during the 1960s was during a period of transition in the field, particularly with the New Wave movement emerging out of England: "Specifically, her first three novels are stories merging the British New Wave sentiment, American genre imagery, and Le Guin's anthropological interests into takes of loss, companionship, isolation, redemption and love." The development of this literary movement cut against the reliance on physical sciences such as chemistry and physics, focusing instead on literary quality and experiment stylistically with story structure and language. By this point in the 1960s, Peter Nicholls explains in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “Many young writers entering the field came to feel... that genre sf had become a straitjacket; though widely supposed to emphasize change and newness, sf had somehow become conservative.” Science Fiction was set to undergo some major changes.
In 1967, Herbert Schein, the publisher of Parnassus Press, approached Le Guin with an invitation to write a book aimed toward younger readers. Le Guin was apprehensive, but after some thought reconsidered and began to think about what she could write about. She revisited some of her earlier works, "The Word of Unbinding" and “The Rule of Names," both of which had been published by Fantastic Stories in 1964, as well as an unpublished story set in the same world. She thought about the creation of wizards, and soon began writing about a younger wizard learning his craft. The coming-of-age story was published in 1968, titled A Wizard of Earthsea. It explored new territory for Le Guin, both as a novel aimed at adolescents and as a book written in a new genre. The short book follows young Ged in a fantastic archipelago world as he learns from various mentors about magic and searches for himself. Like Le Guin’s other works, the story uses characters from a diverse background, a product of her upbringing and awareness of other cultures.
Earthsea was a success, but her best-known work was still on the horizon. The Left Hand of Darkness was published in March 1969 first by Ace Books, and then by Walker & Co. as a hardcover. This new Hanish novel follows an envoy, Genly Ai on a planet called Gethen, whose inhabitants are ambisexual, choosing a gender depending on events around them. The book was Le Guin’s attempt to examine gender in science fiction. “[TLHOD] was my ignorant approach to feminism. I knew just enough to realize that gender itself was coming into question. We didn’t have the language yet to say that gender is a social construction, which is how we shorthand it now.” The book was an immediate critical success, earning Le Guin both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1970. Left Hand of Darkness examined territory largely unexamined in genre fiction, and helped to set the tone for future feminist works and examinations of social constructs such as gender in science fiction.
Since A Wizard of Earthsea was a success, Le Guin returned for a sequel: The Tombs of Atuan was first published in the Winter 1970 issue of Worlds of Fantasy and later as a hardcover from Atheneum Books in 1971. The new Earthsea story focused on a new character, Tenar, a child taken into a religious order. Her world is upended when a visitor, Ged, appears. The novel was well-received and was named a Newbury Honor book in 1972. As Le Guin shifted characters, she also shifted themes, focusing on the very different sort of coming-of-age story for Tenar: “The subject of the Tombs of Atuan is, if I had to put it in one word, sex. There’s a lot of symbolism in the book, most of which I did not, of course, analyze consciously while writing; the symbols can all be read as sexual. More exactly, you could call it a feminine coming of age,” said Le Guin.
Le Guin switched back to science fiction later in 1971 with her next novel, The Lathe of Heaven. The story was first published in Amazing Science Fiction’s March and May issues and later that year as a hardcover. The story takes place in the reasonably near future (2002), where a man named George Orr discovers that he has the ability to dream and change reality around him, sometimes to disastrous effects. The book was nominated in 1972 for a Hugo, and earned the top spot on the annual Locus award for Best Novel in the same year.
Le Guin returned to Earthsea in 1972 for a final entry in the trilogy (at the time), The Farthest Shore, set decades after Tombs of Atuan. In it, Earthsea faces a time of crisis and disorder. Ged, now an Archmage of Roke, sets off to uncover the source of the problems, and faces old enemies recently resurfaced. Where prior novels focused on the growth of the characters, The Farthest Shore looks squarely at death. The novel earned her the National Book Award for a Children’s Book in 1973. 1972 also brought a new Hanish story, “The Word for World Is Forest,” which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions anthology. Inspired by her anger over the events of the Vietnam War, the novella earned her a Hugo Award in 1973.
One of Le Guin’s best-known novels to date, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, came next. Le Guin explained that the first seeds of this book started with the image of a physicist. A short story couldn’t quite capture him, and she eventually binned the early attempts, but was struck with her central character, Shevek, who told her “I am a citizen of Utopia.” She began to read up on utopian literature, and a major novel emerged: Set in her Hanish universe, the physicist Shevek is attempting to complete his General Temporal Theory and leaves his anarchist home world of Anarres for Urras. By doing so, Shevek opens up the story to examine anarchism, revolution, society and individualism. Published in 1974, the book was hailed as a work of utopian literature, and went on to earn the 1975 Locus, Nebula and Hugo Awards, and placed second for the John W. Campbell Memorial award the same year. Critic Brian Aldiss noted that “The Dispossessed forms a high water mark of modern science fiction, illuminating its medium. It is a novel of subtlety and power, and quintessentially science fiction: the story of the creation of an impossible device.”
Le Guin’s brand of science fiction departed from the genre’s traditional components, working in feminist elements to undermine a number of assumptions. The author opens an essay titled “American SF and the Other” with a particularly grim shot: “One of the great early socialists said that the status of women in a society is a pretty reliable index of the degree of civilization of that society. If this is true, then the very low status of women in SF should make us ponder about whether SF is civilized at all.” It’s a theme that works well with many of the topics which Le Guin touched upon in her many works: How are individuals who are different from the protagonist or reader examined and treated? Science fiction can often be described as a mirror to current events, but at the cost of one’s imagination for something radically different. Le Guin’s left hand—her sci-fi hand—worked to examine societies’ greatest challenges, while her right hand—her fantasy hand—looked deeper into the identities of the characters she breathed to life.
Le Guin is one of the genre’s greatest authors to have put pen to paper, and her legacy continues on, challenging, examining and expanding upon the genre’s underlying assumptions. Canadian author Margaret Atwood draws a point on Le Guin's fiction in her essay “The Queen of Quinkdom”: “The Ekumen series may be said—very broadly—to concern itself with the nature of human nature: How far can we stretch and still remain human? What is essential to our being, what is contingent? The Earthsea series is occupied—again, very broadly speaking—with the nature of reality and the necessity of morality, and also with language in relation to its matrix.” In many ways, Le Guin’s works stem from her acute awareness of the world around her, and recognize the complexity and diversity of humanity’s existence. Through this, Le Guin has helped to set up and support major changes in the ongoing conversation that is speculative fiction. Authors ranging from Margaret Atwood to Ann Leckie owe her words and influence a considerable debt. Indeed, Le Guin’s works are revolutionary, a saving throw which came at a time when science fiction was stagnated by its own tropes and styles. Le Guin and other authors of the New Wave demonstrated that science fiction was a much wider world than we ever imagined and challenged us to go further, and we’re working on this to this day. Le Guin, now 84, still lives and writes in Oregon.