We Lost Ursula K. Le Guin When We Needed Her Most
Her novels and stories spoke with the breath of her politics, a graceful and humanist blend of lyrical environmentalism, feminism, and anticapitalism.
Image: Dan Tuffs/Getty Images
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018. I have been dreading the day. Because Ursula had been growing older, stubbornly, inexorably, she was bound to leave us eventually, and because we always seem to lose our heroes when we need them most. And so we lost Ursula.
She started writing as a child, taught to read at five by her older brother, Ted, and began submitting her poems and short stories for publication in her twenties, although not systematically, not until she was thirty, at which point the rejection slips came back hand over fist. Her early work, bursting out of the gate with a romanticism that ebbed with age, didn’t quite resonate with the editors of science fiction magazines. But her maturity coincided with the first stirrings of the genre’s “New Age,” that cultural moment in which the early successes of science fiction—the tales of serialized space adventure Ursula herself grew up reading—fractured, along with the larger American id, into a morass of experimental forays into the cosmic and psychedelic mind.
It suited Ursula, who would forever be fascinated by the interior lives of her characters, even as their stories unfolded in lands populated by roving dragons, androgyne aliens, or dense and ancient forests. Always forests. Her characters were rarely far from a tree; Ursula thought of herself as the most “arboreal” of the science fiction writers, writing that “we all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplained, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.”
I can’t help but think that her fascination with trees was as much Jungian as it was due to the life she made, with her husband and three children, in Portland, Oregon, where I also grew up. There is a knottiness to our forests that takes root in the imagination. As a child, I’d sit in the back seat of my parents’ car, as we drove those one-lane roads that slice through the woods, mentally launching myself, like an arrow, straight into the loamy darkness of the trees, dreaming that they might envelop me completely. In her novels, I always relive that hypnotic pull into the forest; I hear the siren song of deep time, the time of the trees, as they grow silently among us. She wrote a story once about a single oak tree on State Highway 18, in Oregon: how its sole job was too loom and disappear, loom and disappear, marking our movements across the world. That’s empathy, a superhuman kind.
Ursula came up with the greatest of the New Wavers—Octavia Butler, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr.—but she was never wholly of her generation, either, anchored as she was in her own deeply complete moral universe (when I think of Ursula, I think often of a pure-hearted child standing bravely on her own two feet). She was a Taoist, and published her own English version of the Tao Te Ching, a book she was grateful to have discovered at a young age, through her anthropologist father, because it meant she was able to live with it her whole life.
She was also an anarchist, and not in the Anarchist Cookbook sense, what she called “bomb-in-the-pocket stuff,” too easily confused with terrorism. Hers was more pure, rooted in a strong sense of collaboration and mutual support. She read and admired pacifist writers like Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman, comparing them to her beloved Lao Tzu. “Anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian state,” she wrote, and “its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation.” She went all in on this idealism, as she went all in for beauty. For her, these things were never mutually exclusive. They were kin. In the preface to her Tao Te Ching, she wrote, explicitly, that “in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.”
Her novels and stories spoke with the breath of these politics, a graceful and humanist blend of lyrical environmentalism, feminism, and anticapitalism. The only good thing about a money economy, she believed, was that being paid meant her work would circulate, that it would be read—the central pursuit of a writer. She was never afraid to stick to her guns on any issue of principle. Asked to blurb an all-male anthology in 1987, she shot back a searing letter that regularly makes the rounds on social media every time it is re-discovered. Like a boss, she was civil but unflinching: “gentlemen,” she wrote, “I just don’t belong here.” But her most essential statements were embedded deeper, in the literature, in worlds she built from the ground up on principles worth dying for: the anarcho-syndicalist world of Anarres, where even the language has no possessives, or the forest planet of Athshe, where the natives live in a dream-time, in harmony with the trees, or among the Gethenians, a civilization of androgynes, where gender carries no influence in the relations between beings.
"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"
Ursula didn’t often write hard science fiction, what she called “wiring-diagram” stories. Hers was a wider realm, a map of mists and mystics and cold-bright cities under alien moons, populated by wounded races, lost utopias, and creatures beyond time. Unlike other writers of her generation who sidestepped the isolating confines of genre—her good friend, Margaret Atwood, has largely escaped being called a science fiction writer despite being one—she owned the moniker of science fiction, discussing it frequently, looking it over, bending it however she pleased. She also wrote fantasies, poems, songs, and “psychomyths,” which took place “outside of time,” in a realm “without spatial or temporal limits at all.”
Years ago, as a cub reporter, I had the great fortune of interviewing Ursula. She was, at the time, mounting formidable opposition to the Google Books Settlement, a agreement which granted Google permission to circumvent existing US copyright law and scan the world’s print libraries, using a new revenue system designed to compensate authors and publishers for the use of their copyrighted books. Ursula, forever speaking truth to power, had rallied a coalition of 367 of her peers to petition against the tech giant’s “opt-out” policy. She saw the whole thing as an end-run around copyright, although Google justified it as a way of making “orphaned” books—those books whose copyright holders were difficult, if not impossible, to track down—available to the public.
In that spirit, I asked Ursula what she wanted to see happen to her books after she died. I’ll never forget what she said. I’ll share it with you now, as a reminder of how we are supposed to grieve her, even if we can’t read through the tears:
“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.”
Ursula, we will.
Claire L. Evans is a cofounder of Motherboard's science fiction imprint, Terraform. She is the author of "Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet," and lead singer of the pop group YACHT.