Ursula K Le Guin, sci-fi and fantasy author, dies aged 88

The multi award-winning writer of The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea has died at her home in Portland, Oregon

The literary universe has been rocked by the death of Ursula K Le Guin, the American author whose seminal works, including the children’s fantasy Earthsea cycle and the groundbreaking gender-fluid science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, have been hugely influential over the last half-century.

Le Guin’s death on Monday at the age of 88 was announced by her family on Twitter on Tuesday. Her publisher, Gollancz, said she had been in poor health in recent months, although her son Theo Downes-Le Guin told Reuters that “her mind was as sharp as a tack until the last moment”. Her death was mourned by fellow authors and fans including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and China Miéville, who described her as “a colossus of literature, a radical, a trailblazer”.

I just learned that Ursula K. Le Guin has died. Her words are always with us. Some of them are written on my soul. I miss her as a glorious funny prickly person, & I miss her as the deepest and smartest of the writers, too. Still honoured I got to do this: https://t.co/U4mma5pJMw

— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) January 23, 2018

Usula K. LeGuin, one of the greats, has passed. Not just a science fiction writer; a literary icon. Godspeed into the galaxy.

— Stephen King (@StephenKing) January 23, 2018

The author died at her home in Portland, Oregon, where, according to her son, she was working until the last. “She was more or less never not writing. She surprised even herself writing stories until about two months ago,” he said. “She told me a few days ago she felt a little guilty because she was just writing for her own pleasure now.”

Le Guin published the first novel in her Earthsea sequence, which traced the life of the wizard Ged, in 1968. The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel set on a planet where inhabitants only assume the attributes of a gender in order to reproduce, would follow the next year, with the 1970s seeing her release a sequence of pioneering science fiction novels including The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven. The third novel in the Earthsea cycle, The Farthest Shore, won her the National Book Award in children’s literature, while The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed won her both the Hugo and the Nebula prizes.

The author of more than 50 books, spanning poetry, criticism, short stories and a translation of the Tao Te Ching, Le Guin went on to be named winner of the World Fantasy award for lifetime achievement, and was made a “grand master” of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her honours extended beyond genre: in 2014, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, cited for how over “more than 40 years, [she] has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, as well as transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism, to forge new paths for literary fiction”. On receiving the medal, she said she would share it with her fellow science fiction and fantasy authors, “the writers who were excluded from literature for so long … who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists”.

“We are terribly diminished by Ursula Le Guin’s absence,” said Miéville, a science fiction and fantasy writer. “She was, rather, a colossus of literature, a radical, a trailblazer.”

“She influenced a generation and more of writers – women by inspiration and example – but also any men with an ambition to work with science fiction and fantasy to aspire to more than the forms were allowed to do, or be,” said Guy Gavriel Kay. “We’re poorer for her loss, and richer for having had her presence.”

A pioneering feminist, Le Guin pushed at boundaries in both her writing and her campaigning. In a famous letter in 1987, she declined to write a blurb for an anthology containing no writing by women, saying that the tone of it “is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club or a locker room”, ending: “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.” In 2004, she attacked the SyFy Channel’s adaptation of her Earthsea books over its casting of Ged as a white man, when in the books he has “red-brown” skin. “Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow,” she wrote in Slate. “Whites are a minority on Earth now – why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger coloured gene pool, in the future?”

The author was also a vigorous campaigner in industry battles against Google and Amazon, and regularly blogged, sharing her thoughts on everything from Donald Trump (“He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mic off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left – mud,” she wrote in February) to her cat, Pard.

A fierce defender of the science fiction and fantasy genres, Le Guin took on everyone from Margaret Atwood to Kazuo Ishiguro when she identified a sniffy attitude towards the form. “Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction,” Le Guin told the Guardian in 2016. “But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration. Too many imaginative babies were going out with the bathwater. Too many critics and teachers ignored – were ignorant of – any kind of fiction but realism.”

In 2015, she launched an online fiction writing workshop for aspiring authors after declaring she had no more energy for another novel herself, and was ever passionate about the importance of literature. “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become,” she said.

She was also a reviewer for the Guardian. Her most recent piece was published in November 2017.

Her publisher at Gollancz, Malcolm Edwards, said that “those of us who had the pleasure of working with her will remember her as a gracious and good-humoured woman with an iron will, gently expressed”. “She was by common consent one of the greatest – if not the greatest – contemporary SF and fantasy author. This is a very sad day,” said Edwards.

Gollancz will release a collection of Le Guin’s non-fiction on 22 February, Dreams Must Explain Themselves, and has an omnibus of the Earthsea novels, illustrated by the artist Charles Vess, out later in 2018.


Contributors

Alison Flood and Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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