Ursula K. Le Guin died Monday at the age of 88, passing from a living body and voice into the land of dead authors who speak only through their work. This marks the sad loss of one of the greatest figures in American literature, one who remained vital to the end.
Not a sentimentalist, Le Guin seemed to welcome the cold, good earth: the darkness that she celebrated in her stories and poetry as the sacred origin of life. The proper Le Guinean response to her passing is to joyfully read and re-read her. Her books are morally complex, politically courageous, and artistically expansive. They are vital nourishment in a tough moment, and her death feels like an invitation to take up her ideas at a time when we need them most.
Le Guin was above all an advocate for creative imagination, fiercely defending the literary merits of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the genres where she found fame. Her 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” attacks the snobbishness with which establishment critics dismissed fantasy, and sees in this a deeper American pathology that refuses to imagine something different: “they are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.”
Grand imagination characterizes her work, especially the staggering trio of novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and The Dispossessed (1974). These are rip-roaring Sci-Fi epics not defined by heroes or villains but by messy human morality struggling to balance creative ambition against compassion. This Taoist motif appears in much of her writing, including her own delightful translation of the “Tao Te Ching”, and is a breath of fresh air for anyone overwhelmed by the militarism present in so much early Science Fiction or in the current deluge of superheroes and Star Wars.
The Left Hand of Darkness in particular has had lasting influence as one of the defining works of feminist literature. The novel tells the story of a Genly Ai, a future human explorer on an icy planet called Winter whose inhabitants are all gender-fluid. Where other Science Fiction writers at the time used the latest innovations in technology to imagine the future, Le Guin developed a Science Fiction of Anthropology (a discipline in part founded by her father, Alfred Kroeber) that rejects gender as essential to ordering society. The novel remains a cherished guiding star for many queer and trans youth today.
Her Earthsea books for children did the wizard-school narrative 30 years before Harry Potter (a fact she acknowledged with good humor), and her provocative philosophical short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a gut-punch of a fable whose central problem illuminates the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Of the adaptions of her work for the screen, only the quaint 1980 PBS TV movie of The Lathe of Heaven is any good. The rest are poor cash-ins that bungle her key themes, including Avatar which cribs from her 1976 novel The Word for World is Forest to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion: that white savior violence can or should liberate the colonized subject.
Le Guin was not a fan of savior narratives. The work that came closest to expressing her core beliefs—the sprawling, difficult Always Coming Home (1985)—imagines her childhood home of Napa, California in the far future, after war and degradation, returning to a fertile valley. The people of this valley after countless generations develop a society capable of respecting the land and each other and the book recounts in detail their culture as it passes in uneasy harmony with the outside world. The point is that the good life is difficult but not impossible. It can emerge through long, hard work, through listening to the land and to our bodies and to women, especially old women. There is no savior but ourselves.
Since her death the short speech she delivered at the 2014 National Book Awards has been shared widely and is worth revisiting in full. Le Guin fretted in her last years about the direction of American literature overwhelmed by the profit motive in a consolidating publishing business. Behind her small frame and grandmotherly chuckle is a cutting wit that demolishes the room of industry brokers, subverting expectations and punctuating a fifty year career of defying power. We will miss that quiet, writerly courage, and the radical freedom of her imagination.