Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the most prominent names in the world of American fiction writing, has died. According to The New York Times, Le Guin—whose most famous works include science fiction and fantasy mainstays like The Lathe Of Heaven and the Earthsea series of fantasy novels, and whose numerous awards include recognition as a “Living Legend” by the Library Of Congress and a host of lifetime achievement awards from a variety of literary organizations—was 88.
Full of wizards, dragons, and various magical conflicts, or exotic aliens and seeming bizarre cultures, Le Guin’s works carried all of the signifiers of traditional fantasy or science fiction, without embracing the fascination with violence and good vs. evil conflicts that mark so many landmark novels of the genres. Informed by a childhood growing up in the home of an anthropologist and an author—and her own Taoist beliefs—Le Guin’s books instead eschewed grand battles and external evils in favor of explorations of culture shock and the power of communication. (It’s worth noting that her most prominent contribution to the speculative tech lexicon was the “ansible,” a device allowing for instant or near-instant conversation across vast interstellar distances.) Whether writing for young adults—as with the Earthsea books—or their older counterparts (as with beloved books like The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Le Guin’s writing was explicitly both humanist and feminist, expressing hope in connections rather than physical force. (Such philosophical concerns occasionally led critics to label her work “soft science fiction,” a label she fought against, suggesting it said more about the people applying it than the near-infinite limits of the genre itself.)
Le Guin’s work earned her widespread praise and accolades, especially in the world of genre fiction. Her books have won numerous Nebula and Hugo Awards—sometimes both in the same year—and she has been widely recognized as both an advocate for the writing of thoughtful, emotionally intelligent fiction, and one of its most talented and dedicated practitioners. She was an inductee of The Science Fiction And Fantasy Hall Of Fame, a recognized Grand Master of The Science Fiction And Fantasy Authors Of America, and, yet, never let that stream of accolades stop her from speaking truth to power when she perceived an injustice in the publishing world:
It would be hard to overstate Le Guin’s influence over the literature of the latter half of the 20th century; she helped create a template for the kind of speculative fiction where ideas and cultures matter more than cold technology or pulp violence. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, and more have all cited her as a deep-rooted influence on her works, and the Earthsea books—which she initially resisted writing, before realizing that there was no reason that YA literature had to mean talking down to her readers—are still held up as some of the best fantasy writing aimed at younger audiences.
She died yesterday night, in Portland, Oregon, her home of many years.