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The Godmother of Feminist Sci-Fi Finally Won a National Book Award

Ursula Le Guin did more to vault science fiction beyond its origins as a male-dominated pulp category than any other author before or since.

by Claire L. Evans
Sep 11 2014, 3:40pm

Ursula Le Guin. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula K. Le Guin is being given an honorary National Book Award.

That she deserves it is beyond question: at 84 years old, she's run out of other prizes to win. In the science fiction and fantasy ghetto, she's swept all the categories and can safely rest on her laurels as a Science Fiction Writers of America "Grand Master," of which there are only thirty-one. She's done fine in the the mainstream world, too, selling millions of books—she was once even shortlisted for a Pulitzer, a rare feat for a genre writer.

Her novels, which include the Hugo and Nebula-award winning The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe Of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea series, are widely considered to be classics. She has always been closely read by her peers: Gary Snyder and John Updike are fans, and Philip K. Dick called The Lathe of Heaven "one of the basic great books of our civilization."

She is truly a grand dame. In her sixty-odd-year career, she has been an eloquent defender of the genre, and has never shied from the title of "science fiction writer," even when it meant that her brilliant prose might go unrecognized by the literary establishment. Of course, it was the good fight, the right fight, to which this award—which accompanies the increased acceptance and literary visibility of science fiction—is testament.

Of the award, Le Guin, who famously thumbs her nose at honors and bestseller's lists, told the Associated Press, "Well, it's taken the literary/critical/academic establishment 60 or 70 years to learn to respect good science fiction and fantasy, but hey, you've come a long way, baby!"

Classic Le Guin, who has been gleefully anarchic since day one, never afraid to buck convention or to make incisive commentary with her work. Many of her earlier novels, namely, The Dispossesed and The Word for the World is Forest, are elegant political allegories about environmentalism, social issues, anarchism, and Taoism. Some cocktail of the latter two is the recipe for the essential Le Guin point of view; of compassionate and eminently reasonable protest against the status-quo.

She is a committed Taoist, and published her own translation of the Tao Te Ching in 1998, which she explained was perhaps best suited for an "unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul." That she is one of the most transformative figures in feminist science fiction should be obvious from that statement alone. 

Her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which takes place on a world where gender is mutable, arguably invented the sub-genre. It did more to vault science fiction beyond its origins as a male-dominated pulp category than any other book before or since.

In 2009, she resigned from the Authors Guild in protest of its endorsement of Google's book digitization project, and went on to mount formidable opposition against the Web giant's desire to scan the libraries of the world. Her 367-signature-strong petition, which skewed heavily towards her peers in science fiction and fantasy, and included noted authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Marilyn Hacker, Mercedes Lackey, and Vonda N. McIntyre, raised visibility and ire nationwide. 

It wasn't that she was against the idea of an infinite digital public library—quite the opposite—she just wanted the baby brought up right, in the public interest. Her books are dominated by themes of adversity and morality, of right choices being made in the face of formidable uncertainty and darkness. This was no different.

I interviewed her back in 2010, while her protest against Google was in full swing. We talked about the life of a book, and what happens to a piece of literature after its author is gone, a question inextricable from the task of preserving and uploading books to the cloud. Of what she wants to happen to her books after she's gone, she said:

"I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them."

No problem there.