Grand dame of science fiction a 'superbly imaginative creator'

NEW YORK • Ursula Le Guin, the immensely popular author who upended the male-dominated genres of fantasy and science fiction and brought literary depth with books like The Left Hand Of Darkness and the Earthsea series, died on Monday at her home in Portland. She was 88.

Her son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, did not specify a cause, but said she had been in poor health for several months.

Le Guin embraced the standard themes of her chosen genres: sorcery and dragons, spaceships and planetary conflict. But even when her protagonists are male, they avoid the macho posturing of so many science fiction and fantasy heroes. Instead of conflicts between good and evil, her richly imagined stories are organised around a search for "balance" among competing forces - a concept she adapted from her lifelong study of Taoist texts.

Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Several, including The Left Hand Of Darkness - set on a planet where the customary gender distinctions do not apply - have been in print for almost 50 years. Critic Harold Bloom lauded Le Guin as "a superbly imaginative creator and major stylist" who "has raised fantasy into high literature for our time".

In addition to her more than 20 novels, she was the author of a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories, seven collections of essays, 13 books for children and five volumes of translation, including the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. She also wrote a guide for writers.

Her fiction ranges from young-adult adventures to wry philosophical fables. They combine compelling stories, rigorous narrative logic, and a lean but lyrical style to draw readers into what she called the "inner lands" of the imagination. Such writing, she believed, could be a moral force.

"If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there's no way you can act morally or responsibly," she told The Guardian in an interview in 2005. "Little kids can't do it; babies are morally monsters - completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy."

If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there's no way you can act morally or responsibly. Little kids can't do it; babies are morally monsters - completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy.

URSULA LE GUIN on the moral force of writing

The writer's "pleasant duty", she said, is to ply the reader's imagination with "the best and purest nourishment that it can absorb".

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, California, on Oct 21, 1929. Both her parents were anthropologists who studied American Indians in California; her mother wrote an acclaimed book, Ishi In Two World (1960), about the life and death of California's "last wild Indian".

She said that her father's relating of Indian legends provided her introduction to fantasy worlds.

She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, earned a master's degree in romance literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance from Columbia University in 1952, and won a Fulbright fellowship to study in Paris.

There, she met and married another Fulbright scholar, historian Charles Le Guin, who survives her. On their return to the United States, she abandoned her graduate studies to raise a family.

Besides her husband and son, Ursula Le Guin is survived by two daughters, Caroline and Elisabeth Le Guin; two brothers, Theodore and Clifton Kroeber; and four grandchildren.

By the early 1960s Le Guin had written five unpublished novels, mostly set in an imaginary Central European country called Orsinia. Eager to find a more welcoming market, she decided to try her hand at genre fiction. Her first science-fiction novel, Rocannon's World, came out in 1966. Two years later she published A Wizard Of Earthsea, the first in a series about a made-up world where the practice of magic is as precise as any science, and as morally ambiguous. The magic of Earthsea is language-driven: Wizards gain power over people and things by knowing their "true names".

Le Guin took this discipline seriously in naming her own characters.

"I must find the right name or I cannot get on with the story," she said. "I cannot write the story if the name is wrong."

Her books often anticipated other, more-popular fantasy fare, Times journalist David Streitfeld observed in 2016: The Word For World Is Forest (1976), about humans invading a planet of peaceful, nature-loving aliens, seemed an inspiration for James Cameron's blockbuster movie Avatar; Planet Of Exile (1966), where the seasons last 15 years and creatures attack from the frigid north, pointed towards Game Of Thrones.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2018, with the headline 'Grand dame of science fiction a 'superbly imaginative creator''. Print Edition | Subscribe