“What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight, what will the mind do, each morning, waking?”
The words are those of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died on January 22, 2018, at the age of 88. They stand close to the beginning of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, a book that blended many of her long-standing themes. Its protagonist, George Orr, bobs around on a murky sea of irreality that becomes clarified in the world other people live in: George dreams, and the rest of the world lives through his imagination. It is a study in unintended consequences in a world close to our own—the setting is 2002—and like ours in many ways, beleaguered by climate change, food scarcity, poverty, overpopulation. And when George dreams of solutions—well, watch out, for as Francisco Goya so bitterly observed, the dreams of reason produce monsters. Racism, nuclear war, psychiatric abuses, ethnic and nationalist strife, all play their role in Le Guin’s quietly dystopian cautionary tale.
There are many distinctions between the genres known as science fiction and fantasy, the principal one being that the former is based on science, the assumption that everything is explicable by natural laws, while the latter hinges on magic. Each has its logic, but the logic of fantasy is somewhat wispy, the logic of science immutable and hard-edged.
For Le Guin, such distinctions were not especially interesting or meaningful. Her first intellectual guides were her parents, the pioneering ethnologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber (whence the K. in her name), who are perhaps most famous today for having worked with the supposedly Stone Age Native American survivor known as Ishi. They introduced her to the rigors of scientific anthropology and psychology early on while allowing her to roam freely in their large library of folklore and mythology, and all of it took: From anthropology, she ran with the idea that there is one humankind but many worlds, one human race but many interpretations of it, and from myth she gladly accepted the thought that improbable things can happen without the need to stretch reality too far. Thus the boggling opening of one of her best-known books, The Left Hand of Darkness: “The king was pregnant.”
The reigning kings of science fiction, Asimov and Heinlein and Sturgeon and company, didn’t quite know what to make of Le Guin, and indeed of the not-quite-like them cohort of writers who came into the genre at about the time she did, who wrote of realms in which the rules of gender, sexuality, time travel, political power, and other such things were not fixed. Her influence came to extend to many writers working in science fiction and fantasy, but also well beyond it; today writers from Barbara Kingsolver and Luis Alberto Urrea to Eileen Gunn and David Mitchell have acknowledged her role as guide and pioneer, and she has any number of heirs, perhaps most notably the writer Neil Gaiman, whose reshapings of folktale into fantasy delighted her.
That esteem was shared within the publishing world, too. “Working with Ursula was a privilege, an honor, and a tremendous joy for me, and for many here at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and elsewhere in the industry,” her editor, Naomi Gibbs, said via email. “She was an unparalleled writer who lived an extraordinary life. She’s leaving behind an incomparable body of work, and her remarkable spirit.”
If anything, Ursula K. Le Guin was a political writer, her stories allegories of power for good and ill. In the first volume of her famed Earthsea series, she sharply noted, “It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.” In other words, evil persists in the world because we allow it to do so. She went on to say, in a widely cited speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, when she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the predatory capitalist order in which we live; we can extract ourselves from it at will. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” she said. “Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.” Ursula Le Guin worked in worlds of possibility and liberation, pointing the way toward a better future, and she will be missed.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.