Oct 20 2011 5:00pm

Did Ursula Le Guin Change the Course of SFF?

Only a brainwashed alien from a dimension in which creativity didn’t exist would be unaware that Ursula K. Le Guin is a prolific badass of a writer. But did she literally change both the fields of science fiction and fantasy forever? Last night at The Center for Fiction, a stellar panel discussed the influences of Ursula K. Le Guin and one assertion was particularly interesting; the possibility that Le Guin was one of the best science fiction writers of the latter-half of the 20th century not only because of her innovation, but also because of her plurality.

The panel was moderated by Tor Books’s very own David Hartwell, and consisted of Michael Swanwick, N.K. Jemisin, Ellen Kushner, and John Wray. Of everyone involved, Wray was the only author not specifically a science fiction or fantasy writer, though totally has a deep love, respect, and knowledge of the genre. Both he and Ellen Kushner briefly touched on the notion of NOT writing books and stories in the style of one’s literary heroes, (like Le Guin) before getting into the expansive discussion of Le Guin as undeniable influence on the genre fields. Here, Swanwick asserted that trying to measure Le Guin’s importance to the field was like trying to figure out “what salt means to the sea.” Hartwell mentioned that the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction considers Le Guin to be one of the best SF writers of the latter 20th century. Hartwell also said that Robert Heinlein once told him that Le Guin was the “best writer of her generation.”

In speaking about the social importance of Le Guin, N.K. Jemisin mentioned an essay by Pam Noles called “Shame” which explores the minority experience of reading A Wizard of Earthsea, specifically, the revelation that a good majority of the characters are not white. This, Jemisin feels, is a major contribution Le Guin gave to SFF literature, the notion that the reader would find “some one like them” in those pages. Swanwick chimed in saying that in terms of progressive notions that Le Guin actually helped to create certain sparks of the feminist movement. He went out to point out that he grows a bit impatient with some of his younger students who retroactively believe Le Guin was not “feminist enough” with the Left Hand of Darkness because the male pronoun is used as the default for the hermaphroditic inhabitant of Gethen. Swanwick feels that what is forgotten here is the notion that it’s not that the book doesn’t age well, it’s that the book helped to create the conversation younger people are even having. “The question I asked myself,” Swanwick said, “was: How could someone even conceive of this!?” And if one looks at it that way, the revolutionary notions behind Left Hand of Darkness are fairly clear.

The entire panel talked a lot about the social science aspect of Le Guin’s work with Ellen Kushner noting that she uses Le Guin a lot in her conversations with friends “who think they don’t like science fiction.” John Wray said that the nice thing about Le Guin’s work is that not only is there an “economy” to the social science components of her work but that if you disagree with aspects of the philosophy he feels that “Le Guin would have been okay with that.” Kushner agreed noting, “Le Guin likes discourse.”  This notion of plurality was further affirmed by Hartwell reminiscing about a time in which he was editing an anthology of traditional hard SF, while Le Guin was working on an anthology that was untraditional and therefore essentially the exact opposite kind of book. “She sent me a postcard right after both books came out saying that she thought it was a good thing for science fiction for both of the books to be released and that she hoped I agreed with her. And I did!”

In terms of her influence on the panel’s writing specifically, N.K Jemisin noted that Le Guin made a big impact on rediscovering her love of short stories. Jemisin cited “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a major revelation as the story caused so much “pain, because it’s intended to be a painful story.” Jemisin previously felt she didn’t need nor understand the medium of short fiction, but after some prodding from peers and reading the short fiction of Le Guin, she thinks totally differently.

Swanwick, Kushner, and Jemisin all also pointed out how Ursula K. Le Guin made certain strides for the genre of fantasy, insofar as the Earthsea books didn’t necessarily follow the formula of Tolkien. Swanwick said, “Prior to Tolkien, every single fantasy novel was totally unique” while Kushner, said that she felt like she was “betraying her (Tolkien) people by liking A Wizard of Earthsea better than Lord of the Rings. The panel all pointed out that they loved the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but as Jemisin noted earlier in the evening, a reader could find themselves in the pages of Le Guin and maybe not in Return of the King.

It seems pretty plausible that for both science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin did change everything, and universe in which we didn’t have her works would be an alternate dimension of much less innovative, and perhaps not as profound socially progressive speculative fiction.

For more on Le Guin and Earthsea from, click here.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for

R. Thornton
1. R. Thornton
I read The Dispossessed in ninth grade and was awestruck. By some strange coincidence, I had to write about a book for a political science class and it was on the list (my county's schools were quite progressive).

That book was a major influence on my outlook along with Heinlein. Through the eyes of the anarchist physicist Shevek, she demonstrated the limits of capitalism but, in a radical twist for my young mind, she turned that same scalpel on the anarchy itself and demonstrated its limitations! Nothing was perfect, all ideologies had limitations, and we must embrace imperfection while striving for the perfect. Wow. Thanks, Ms. Le Guin.
R. Thornton
2. Petar Belic
I think its quite implausible, as a statement.

However she was a fearless experimenter (I did like Always Coming Home) and as such, should be lauded.

But unlike more of the hard-SF and pulp SF writers who actually did inspire the likes of NASA to dream out loud, her works were quieter, more anthropologically driven meditations on society.
Ken Walton
3. carandol
@2. I wonder how many of the people currently occupying Wall Street and other cities around the world were directly or indirectly inspired by Le Guin? Her books are an easy gateway into alternative politics. Reading her books as a teenager certainly influenced my view of the world.
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@3 The panel actually talked about a Le Guin story called "After the Revolution" in direct reference to exactly what you're saying! :-)
R. Thornton
5. Christina1
I really liked the Earthsea trilogy myself. The "minority vibe" especially.
R. Thornton
6. Alexander K.
It seems to me that the question should be phrased as "How did Ursula Le Guin change the course of SFF?" I really don't think there's an "if" to it.
R. Thornton
7. a-j
I wonder if A Wizard of Earthsea helped fantasy to avoid being completely subsumed by Tolkien tropes. This is not to denigrate Tolkien, but Lord of the Rings did have a bit of a 'black hole' effect on the genre.
R. Thornton
8. Ingrid
Happy birthday, Ursula Le Guin!
R. Thornton
9. Lev Abalkin
Possibly a more constructive approach would be to ask, "What influences has she had on non-US SFF?"

Because everybody knows she had a major impact on US SFF; that's a given.

Did she have any influence on European writers? On African writers? On Eastern or Western or Central Asian writers? On Latin American writers?

(FWIW, I'm sure she had an influence on one South-East Asian writer I've read, in that her novel was quite explicitly "magical realism" where I think the writer would've used a more traditional social realism style; but magical realism also happens to be the preferred style of South Americans and many West Asians such as Salman Rushdie: "social realism" isn't adequate to convey all the meaning of their stories. And the writer I'm thinking of, but whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, was writing in English and living in Sydney, NSW.)

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