Science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (born 1929) created fantastic worlds in which the author's strong-willed, feminist protagonists have increasingly taken center stage.
Ursula K. Le Guin
An understanding of both anthropology and varied cultures informed the highly acclaimed science fiction writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. In such books as the Earthsea Trilogy, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Left Hand of Darkness, she created what Nancy Jesser in Feminist Writers called "an anthropology of the future, imagining whole cultural systems and conflicts." Eschewing the "pulp" aspects of most science-fiction-brawny male heroes, compliant women, and over-the-top technology as both cause and solution to the world's problems-Le Guin was known for skillfully telling a story containing many layers of meaning beneath its calm exterior. Her Earthsea novels have been cited by several reviewers as characteristic of her work; an essayist in Science Fiction Writers commented that, as it was "constrained neither by realistic events nor by scientific speculation, but only by the author's moral imagination, " the Earthsea books showed such characteristic themes from "questing and patterning motifs to [her] overall emphasis on 'wholeness and balance."' Echoes of Taoism, Jungian psychology, ecological concerns, and mythos resonate throughout her written works.
Inspired by Parents' Example
Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, on October 21, 1929. Her father, anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, was noted for his studies of the Native American cultures of California. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber Quinn, was a psychologist and, in her later years, a writer; she would be a particularly strong influence on her daughter, both as a writer and as a feminist.
Raised in an intellectually stimulating environment, Le Guin excelled at academics. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Harvard University's Radcliffe College, where she received her bachelor's degree, in 1951, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa national honorary. Course work in New York City, at Columbia University, followed. Le Guin was named a faculty fellow, in 1952, and received a Fulbright fellowship to study in Paris, in 1953, having earned her master's degree in romance literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance from Columbia, the previous year.
The year after she earned her master's degree at Columbia, Le Guin married the historian Charles A. Le Guin. The couple made their home in Portland, Oregon. They had two daughters and one son. Prior to raising her family, she got a job as a French instructor at Mercer University, in Macon, Georgia, before moving on to the University of Idaho for a brief period, in 1956.
Short Fiction Set Stage for Novels
Le Guin's first written efforts consisted of poetry and short fiction. Her first published work was the story "April in Paris, " which appeared in Fantastic magazine, in 1962, when she was 33 years old. Le Guin's first novel, Rocannon's World, would be published by Ace Books, in 1966. It was the first of many science-fiction works she would write in the following decades, and the first of her five-volume "Hainish" series of novels. In the Hainish novels—Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Word for World Is Forest—the author allowed readers to follow the physical and emotional journeys taken by her protagonists as they were confronted with cultures that had rules and systems radically different from their own. The Hainish were a race of beings from the planet Hain who have colonized all planets of the Universe that will sustain them. As each colony adapted to its new, unique environment, it developed differently, evolving distinctive physical and cultural traits in relation to other Hain colonies. Le Guin's protagonists must become, in a sense, amateur anthropologists in their attempts to understand and exist within new worlds as they journey between colonies, re-evaluating their own cultural assumptions in the process.
Novels Explored Universal Themes
While most science fiction has traditionally been dismissed by critics, as well as serious students of literature, Le Guin's sophisticated, well-studied, yet immensely readable novels have been able to break the barrier and gain a mainstream audience and mainstream attention, perhaps because of her ability to weave fantasy elements into her gentle, often dispassionate prose. After the publication of the highly acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, 1971's The Lathe of Heaven, and 1974's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Le Guin's work began to be taken seriously, even within academic circles.
With these novels, the author seriously explored the influence of gender roles and race on cultural attitudes, and focused on such backlashes as sexism and oppression in all of their forms. The juxtaposition of contrasting societies was a familiar motif: one society off balance, characterized by violence, injustice, and inequality; the other stable, just, and peaceful. This duality related to the universal duality reflected in such sources as the Christian belief in heaven and hell, or the Taoist philosophy of balanced opposites, the yin and yang. Le Guin's focus on this universal duality has allowed her fiction to speak to mainstream readers, particularly those not inducted into the heavy-duty technological concerns addressed in so-called "hard science fiction."
In her works after the Hainish novels, Le Guin began to broaden her talents, writing poetry, the short play No Use to Talk to Me, two volumes of literary criticism, and several children's books. In her imaginative Catwings and Catwings Return, she entertained younger readers with imaginary worlds containing flying cats and kittens. In Le Guin's adult novels written after the mid-1970s, she also began to stretch the boundaries of her so-called science fiction, creating the quasi-history of an anonymous nineteenth-century country in 1979's, Malafrena, and again in the short stories collected in Orsinian Tales, and combining music (via an accompanying cassette), verse, anthropologist's notations, and stories in 1985's, Always Coming Home, a book about the Kesh, future inhabitants of California who establish a new society after ecological Armageddon.
Fantasy Fiction as Effective Allegory
Whether set in the past or future, each of Le Guin's novels actually addressed the present. Imbedded within the plot of her 1972 novel The Word for World Is Forest, thoughtful readers could easily discover solemn parallels to the Vietnam War era, as well as telling commentary about the destruction of the world's rain forests. The novel told of the reaction of the colonizing culture-the Terrans-to the peaceful, forest-dwelling tribes-the Athsheans (read "indigenous tribes of South America and Indonesia") that they encountered in their new home. Because they fear the ways of the Athsheans, the Terrans react violently, destroying the homes of the forest dwellers in an effort to exterminate them and reap financial rewards.
Spanning Le Guin's career as a writer were her four award-winning Earthsea novels, which have been praised by critics as some of her most enjoyable works. Beginning with 1968's A Wizard of Earthsea, readers met the goat herder Ged, who lives on one of a kingdom of islands known as Earthsea, as he trains to become a practitioner of magic. In later novels in the series-The Tombs of Atuan (1970) and The Farthest Shore (1972)-Ged matured as both a man and a wizard, grappling with hubris, then flattery, before sacrificing his own powers to save his world. In 1990s, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, which concluded the series and which Le Guin wrote as a response to criticism by feminists that her male protagonists were all powerful, and female characters merely helpers, an elderly woman and a young girl were featured. According to Charlotte Spivack in her appraisal, Ursula Le Guin, "Earthsea is a convincingly authenticated world, drawn with a sure hand for fine detail. [It is a] mature narrative of growing up, a moral tale without a moral, a realistic depiction of a fantasy world."
In addition to her prolific career as an author, Le Guin has taught writing workshops at numerous colleges around the United States, as well as in Australia and Great Britain. She has also revised several of her early works, updating them in response to her growing feminist leanings. She has also been involved in the adaptation of several of her novels into motion pictures. The Public Television production of The Lathe of Heaven, in 1980, benefited from her adaptation of her own novel-the story about a man whose dreams alter reality-as well as her on-the-set production assistance. Le Guin's positive appraisal of the resulting film was a marked contrast to most authors' feelings about their work after a film crew gets through with it. The recipient of numerous awards, she continued to make her home in Oregon.
Further Reading on Ursula K. Le Guin
Bittner, James, Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, UMI Research Press, 1984.
Bleiler, E.F., editor, Science Fiction Writers, Scribner's, 1982.
Cogell, Elizabeth Cummings, Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1997.
Greenburg, Martin H., and Joseph D. Olander, Ursula Le Guin, Taplinger, 1979.
Slusser, George Edgar, The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin, Borgo Press, 1976.
Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula Le Guin, Twayne, 1984.
Science-Fiction Studies, March 1976.