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The fantasy and science fiction community pays tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

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Saying farewell to a titan of the field

Ursula Le Guin Holding Book

Yesterday, the science fiction and fantasy community lost a titan: Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dispossessed, and many, many others. Le Guin was one of the most influential genre authors of the 20th century, and it’s nearly impossible to quantify the impact that she had on scores of successors.

The Verge reached out to a number of science fiction and fantasy authors to get their thoughts on Le Guin’s passing, and the influence that she had on their own works. Here’s what they said:

Nnedi Okorafor, author of the Binti trilogy and Who Fears Death:

Image: Panther Science Fiction

Annalee Newitz, founder of io9 and author of Autonomous:

LeGuin was one of the first SF authors to popularize the idea that good science fiction worldbuilding always needed a believable social component. One of the things that I remember vividly when reading the Earthsea books as a child was how the world felt real because it contained many cultures, races, languages, and ecosystems. It wasn’t your typical SF novel where explorers would visit the “jungle planet” or “desert planet.” Earthsea was a fantasy, but set on a far more realistic world than most “hard” SF at the time. She turned cultural exploration into a vital part of the genre. And of course her characters are nearly always scientists, anthropologists, lone diplomats, and travelers. They use participant observation and analysis to explore, rather than weapons and unequal trades.

LeGuin always insisted on ambiguity in her work. Indeed, The Dispossessed is subtitled “an ambiguous utopia” because SF political thought until that point had often been so simplistic that she actually needed to signal to her readers that yes, she realized this was a utopia with flaws. There’s nothing more rewarding than a novel that gives no easy answers to the question of “how can we progress?” In The Dispossessed, we see two worlds that are deeply troubled, but full of promise. There’s no easy way forward. We have to walk the thorny path toward Utopia, and maybe we’ll never get there. But at least in LeGuin’s stories, we’re given a new vista from which to look at our own world’s struggles, which is the first step toward imagining something better.

Charlie Jane Anders, co-founder of io9 and author of All the Birds in the Sky:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing meant everything to me. I keep finding new meaning in her works every time I revisit them, like a few years ago when I re-read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and it gave me new insights into the nature of systemic injustice. I read the entire Earthsea series in one go, and was astounded to see how it evolved and deepened as the characters aged and the world opened out. When I first read The Dispossessed, I was speechless at how well she captured the complexity and anguish of real-life politics, while telling a deep story about physics and interplanetary relations. I honestly can’t even imagine what my writing would be like if I hadn’t read her work when I did -- and I’m certain that many of my favorite works by other authors might not exist in the same form without her. She’s a cornerstone of speculative fiction, and so much of our best storytelling traces its roots back to her. The more I write, and the more I think about fictional politics and societies, the more I find myself in awe of her singular powers. Nobody else can ever equal Le Guin, but many of us will spend our whole careers striving to build on her incredible legacy.

Ken Liu, author of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Grace of Kings:

Through a dozen moves, I’ve had to sell off or give away practically all my books from my high school years. The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, however, have remained on my shelf. More than anyone else, Le Guin showed me how to write SFF with an anthropological approach while interrogating the colonialist agenda and assumptions of the field itself. More than any writer of her stature, she constructed worlds in which I thought I could find and lose myself. I will miss her dearly.

Image: Ace Books

Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach trilogy and Borne:

I grew up on A Wizard of Earthsea as a teenager, and those books taught me that fantasy could have weight and consequence while being wild and strange, too. But the genius of Le Guin was that she wrote in so many different modes. She was among the first to deal in useful and interesting ways with environmental themes in her short fiction, gender in some of her most famous novels, wrote great stories with no speculative element at all, and she also loved to experiment with form in terms of her creation of worlds. Her nonfiction was a delight to read because she did not suffer fools. The fact she would include found objects from her worlds and also songs and other evidence was a definite influence on my Ambergris novels, just as the environmental stories were on my other work. But I think the biggest thing I took away from her fiction, and her nonfiction, was the sharp thoughtfulness and humanity behind all it.

N.K. Jemisin, author of The Broken Earth and Inheritance trilogies:

I’d definitely still be a writer if not for her, but I don’t think I’d be as good a writer. Le Guin is one of the writers who taught me that beauty and fearlessness go hand in hand.

John Scalzi, author of Redshirts, Old Man’s War, and The Collapsing Empire:

In an appreciation in the Los Angeles Times, Scalzi noted that Le Guin “was a supporting column of the genre, on equal footing and bearing equal weight to Verne or Wells or Heinlein or Bradbury. Losing her is like losing one of the great sequoias. As the unceasing flow of testimonials gives witness, nearly every lover and creator of science fiction and fantasy can give you a story of how Le Guin, through her words or presence, has illuminated their lives.”

In a statement to The Verge, he continued:

This weekend I picked up an essay collection of Le Guin’s with the all too-timely title No Time to Spare. One of the many things that impresses me about Le Guin is indeed she wrote and appeared to live as if there was no time to spare -- she was always engaged with the world, both in fiction and through opinion pieces. This was the practical and tangible side to an artist who probably could have just rested on laurels, but couldn’t be bothered with that nonsense. I liked that about her. She used all her time, and well.

Image: Bantam Spectra

Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians trilogy:

Le Guin was a toweringly important figure for me. I read the first three Earthsea books when I was 12, and it was a transformative experience for me. Her fantasy had a different quality to it than, say, Tolkien’s or Lewis’s. She was every bit their equal in power and brilliance, but her fantasies had a humane and just human quality that I found nowhere else. And the sheer intelligence of it was intoxicating. Also, unlike them, she wasn’t afraid of sex. Though it was later colonized by Hogwarts, her school of magic on Roke was the original vision for Brakebills.

I met her only once—she was doing press for Lavinia, which meant she must have been almost eighty. I met her in the lobby of her hotel, and something had gone wrong with the plumbing. As a result, the lobby was slowly, gracefully flooding around us as we talked. She was untroubled by this.

That night my iPhone was stolen, along with the recording of the interview. But I’d transcribed half of it, and a few gems survived. I asked her how she felt about endings:

”Why should a novel seek for a tidy closure? Novels are inherently rather messy. They use time very differently from drama. Beginning-middle-end isn’t obligatory. They can wander through a whole lifetime, or follow a great circle like Lord of the Rings, or go right on from what seemed a closure (as happened with Earthsea — my mistake!) I have nothing against endings, but I do write in a form that doesn’t take them too seriously.”

No end to the riches. When I got my very first two author copies of The Magicians, hot off the presses, I packed one carefully away, and I signed and inscribed the other one and mailed it to Le Guin. It was the least I could do.

Myke Cole, author of the Shadow Ops series and The Armored Saint:

As a young boy, fantasy had the rearing of me, and so much of my early conception of what it meant to be a “good” man came from Tolkien, or Lloyd Alexander, or John Christopher, or even (shudder), Piers Anthony.

In all these, the heroes I sought to emulate were young men, taking their first uncertain steps into a dangerous world. That world was dangerous because it was beset by Orcs, or by Cauldron-Born, or by Tripods, or by whatever adversary that was most easily battered into submission with a sword.

It wasn’t until I read Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy that I learned that there were other terrors to face, and other ways to face them. It was her writing that pushed the horizons of fantasy for me, planted the first seeds in my mind that problems weren’t always to be beaten into submission, and that sometimes as with Ged and his Shadow, the enemy we had to confront was simply our own nature, and the most powerful weapon against it was the stillness and hard work that leads to understanding.

This lesson, learned over many long years reading everything she published, made me not just a better writer, but a better person.

Theodora Goss, author of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter:

When I was a teenager, I would go to the mall, to the B. Dalton between two clothing boutiques. There, I would immediately walk to the science fiction and fantasy section, to look for a new book by the constellation of female writers who were my personal muses, my pantheon: Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Tanith Lee, and Patricia McKillip. I read everything they wrote that appeared in my local bookstore or library. They introduced me to dragons and dragonriders, wizards casting spells with words, ships with eyes and starships with voices, harpers posing riddles or playing instruments of bone, fairy tales turned upside down and inside out . . . They also introduced me to new ways of using language, and it is from them that I first got the idea I could become a writer.

Now Ursula Le Guin is gone, and I am sad, but not just sad--I am angry, bitterly angry at Death for ceaselessly taking the good ones, the ones who are precious to us. If it were up to me, I would follow her spirit across that low stone wall, into the dry kingdom, and drag her back--however much she told me that this is the way things are, that we cannot live forever, that the cycle of life is itself precious. Mythical figures, I would tell her, never die, and if anyone deserves to be one, she does. She would, I suspect, reject that argument utterly. One of her rare qualities was that of being a sensible, realistic prophet, who sees both herself and humanity clearly. So we are left with her writing, which is both everything and not enough. But for those of us left behind, it will have to be.

There is one thing I wish I could have told her, although she probably knew: that she has hundreds of daughters. All those teenage girls who also found her books in local bookstores or libraries and grew up to become writers. She taught them that women could write about other planets and political philosophy, with clarity, profundity, and grace. She gave each of us a little bit of her voice, and we are all better writers and human beings because of it.

Image: Berkley Science Fiction

Joe Monti, editorial director of Saga Press:

The first copy I bought of Ursula’s brilliant essay collection (edited by Susan Wood), The Language of the Night, was twenty-eight years ago at a used bookstore in White Plains, NY. (I currently own three copies. The original one sits on display in my office, facing my desktop, always in view out of the corner of my eye, dog-eared and full of tabs.) It was the 1982 Berkley edition.

In this collection Ursula taught me that “…fantasy is the natural, the appropriate, language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul.” (The Child and the Shadow) She taught me not to be afraid of dragons. (Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?) That “The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.” That “The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” (Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness)

I was nineteen, dropped out of college, working part-time at B. Dalton #321, and lost. The owner of that used bookshop came over to me as I was holding that book to compliment me on my choice. He was an older man, at least to my eyes then, maybe in his early sixties, and I told him I wanted to get into publishing to be an editor but that no one was going to take a lower middle class kid from Yonkers. I still remember how he looked at me, making the kind of eye contact I wished I received from my father as he said, “I think you’ll be surprised kid.”

I’ve worked with Ursula on editing two books, with the third to come this fall, The Books of Earthsea, a fully illustrated (by Charles Vess) collection of all of the Earthsea novels and stories.