The Science Fiction and Fantasy Community Remembers Ursula K. Le Guin

The literary community has lost a living icon in Ursula K. Le Guin, but it will never lose the inspiration that her works and her life so freely and universally provided. All you have to do is glance through social media to see what an impact Le Guin had on members of the science fiction and fantasy community and otherwise, many of whom shared their immediate memories and paid tribute in emotional tweets, Facebook feed posts, articles, and more.

For those who didn’t know Le Guin outside of her books, or those who simply wish to revisit her multifaceted life, this 2016 New Yorker profile tracks her early forays into writing.

 

From Twitter:

 

Members of the SFF community have also published longer tributes.

John Scalzi for the Los Angeles Times:

This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer — the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who then walk through it. “Always Coming Home” is not generally considered one of Le Guin’s great books, but for me as a writer and a reader, it was the right book at the right time. The book turned me on to the possibility of science fiction beyond mere adventure stories for boys — that the genre could contain, did contain, so much more. The book opened me to read the sort of science fiction I didn’t try before.

NPR’s obituary included thoughts from Mary Robinette Kowal:

“She was one of the first really big voices in science fiction and fantasy who was a woman,” Kowal added. “And I think she did a lot for science fiction and fantasy — not just for women and women’s roles because of her feminism but also legitimizing us as an art form. There are a lot of people who will read an Ursula Le Guin book and go, ‘Well, this isn’t science fiction, it’s literature. But of course, it is science fiction. A lot of times, she can be a gateway drug for people.”

Then Kowal expounds on her thoughts on her own blog:

I love that she continues to interrogate fiction and society. That she is unafraid to admit error. That she doesn’t see it as a weakness but as a way to grow. I love her power.

I find myself unable to speak of her in the past tense. This was the problem when I recorded the interview for her obituary. Ursula Le Guin was alive when I did that.

Today, I have been told that she is dead. There is a low wall between us, but not enough, I think to keep her from shaping my life or yours.

The Verge has collected statements from the founders of io9, Ken Liu, Lev Grossman, SAGA Press editorial director Joe Monti, and more. From Autonomous author and io9 founder Annalee Newitz:

There’s nothing more rewarding than a novel that gives no easy answers to the question of “how can we progress?”

 

Authors have also shared their personal remembrances:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ursula K. Le Guin showed me what science fiction could be. The first SF novel I ever read—at least the first SF novel for adults—was The Left Hand of Darkness, which is the perfect book to blow a teenage reader’s mind. I’ve returned to her over and over again (The Lathe of Heaven is a personal favorite) as the years have passed. Le Guin was such a great author with a such a wide range of work that writers can draw countless lessons from her work. But what I love most about Le Guin’s work is her ability to make us envision new ways of living and new ways of thinking. Le Guin knew that science fiction and fantasy have the power to make us imagine different ways of living, from the ambigendered Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness to the anarchist society of The Dispossessed.

I also loved Le Guin as a thinker and gadfly. Le Guin always fought to tear down the wall between “literary” and “genre” fiction. And I’ll always remember her addressing a room of the publishing world elite in their tuxedos at the 2014 National Book Awards (where she was receiving a lifetime achievement award) and railing against a corporate publishing climate that lets “commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and arguing that “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

She will be missed, but never forgotten.

Lincoln Michel is the author of Upright Beasts. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.

 

Only in Silence

I may have read everything Le Guin ever published. I certainly tried to. It seems greedy of me, given what a vast and rich compendium of work she gave us, to be bitter that there won’t be any more.  And yet, here I am, greedy and bitter and bereft.

As a parent, there’s a little voice in the back of my head, any time I’m spending time with my children. The voice says, “You don’t know what’s going to stick, what little things you say or do, that will end up what they remember. Your words and actions constantly act to affect and shape their personality. Be aware.” I first encountered Le Guin’s work at a formative age, then revisited it over and over again. Ursula didn’t necessarily have the answers, but she kept asking, and kept me asking, all the right questions, all the hard questions.  She shaped me as a person, as deeply as my own parents did.

The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world.  Am I asking the hard questions?  Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?

We sing rounds at the end of WisCon, after the SignOut that officially ends the con, just standing in a circle in the hallway on the second floor. We do it because we can’t bear for the Con to be over, because we are so sad to go. It’s become a tradition these last few years, singing ourselves out. People come and join us, both friends and strangers; people wander off again to collect suitcases and hugs.

We end with a round written by Benjamin Newman, set to words by Ursula. Singing helps the sadness, a little.

“Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.”

—“The Creation of Éa,” Ursula K. Le Guin

If you’re doing it as a round, the second voice comes in on ‘dark’.

Forgive my wobbly voice.

Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of The Stars Change (among other titles), the founder of Strange Horizons, and director of the Speculative Literature Foundation.

 

“We get so few truly great writers–by which I mean great people–that when we lose them it’s as though the Spiritus Mundi itself is depleted, bereft. Ursula was uncommonly generous, both on the page and in person, and the short time I knew her will surely live long and large in my mind.”

Cheston Knapp is the author of Up Up, Down Down and the Managing Editor of Tin House.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin first came to me through a worn copy of Earthsea, with pages missing and the hardened cover resembling deer skin. I was a Tolkien-loving child and eager to get my hands on fantasy or sci-fi that would feed my obsession. But Le Guin’s characters and worlds were unlike the other I’d encountered in my literary travels. They seemed more alive, somehow, more resembling of the complexities of the world I was living in, more representative of the people I knew and the issues they cared about. It was fiction written with the excitement and playfulness of genre but with the humanistic mission and determination that seemed almost revolutionary. And what a surprise it was to find as I grew up that the author of some of my favorite childhood fantasy novels was also a brilliant essayist, enlightened political commentator, a champion of feminism, and an activist for a more inclusive publishing industry. A true example of an artist who, both through her books and activism, changed the world for the better.

Generations of writers influenced by Le Guin are already out there, and there will be many more generations still, carrying this writer’s legacy forward indefinitely. For this legacy, we owe Ursula K. Le Guin gratitude that can only be expressed by the millions upon millions of people who, today, are grieving for this voice unlike any other. I will miss her greatly—fortunately, my bookshelves are filled with small artifacts of her imagination that she’d left behind, and those can never be taken away.

Jaroslav Kalfař is the author of Spaceman of Bohemia.

 

Of course, one of the best ways to remember Le Guin is to carry on her words: the best lines from her novels, her responses—witty, searing, unforgettable—to interviewers, fellow writers, editors, and readers. Here is Le Guin in her own words, and the occasional drawing:

Margaret Killjoy shared an interview with Le Guin from 2008:

Margaret: One of the things that I’m quite curious to explore is the role of the radical as an author of fiction. What do you feel like you’ve accomplished, on a social/political level, with your writing? Do you have any specific examples of change that you’ve helped initiate?

Ursula: I may agree with Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but he didn’t mean they really get many laws enacted, and I guess I didn’t ever really look for definable, practical results of anything I wrote. My utopias are not blueprints. In fact, I distrust utopias that pretend to be blueprints. Fiction is not a good medium for preaching or for planning. It is really good, though, for what we used to call conscious-raising.

Chuck Wendig has compiled some of Le Guin’s best writing advice, which comes from her book Steering the Craft:

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

Talking to Guernica in 2008 about growing up during wartime and learning to write as a woman:

Guernica: You mention in your interview with FEMIN that you had to learn to write as a woman—this was very interesting to me, and I would appreciate anything you could add to that. It describes an amazing gap between what one is and what one must be to live—a gap created by the culture into which one is born, and created by what that culture feels are its necessities, which, I think, is one of your themes. What was the moment when you first became aware that you would need to learn this, and how did you go about it once you knew it was what you must do?

Ursula K. Le Guin: I like your metaphor of the gap. So many people live in such a gap! And they have to decide whether they want to pretend it isn’t there, or find out how to live in it, or try to close it. Or—mostly—life decides that for them. To have a choice at all is to be privileged.

There wasn’t any aha! moment about feminism for me. I just kept reading stuff and thinking. My mind works slowly and obscurely, and I mostly find out what I’m doing by looking at what I’m doing or have done. Mostly I don’t even do that. But when what I do isn’t getting done very well, when it seems to be stuck or going wrong, that induces me to look at it. ‘What am I doing? Why isn’t it behaving?’ This happened in the middle of The Eye of the Heron, when Lev insisted on getting himself killed in the middle of the story, leaving my book without a hero, and me wondering what the hell? It took a good deal of backing up and pondering over what I had written to realize that Luz had been the hero all along, that Luz was the one who would lead her people into the wilderness. I can identify that as the moment when I consciously shifted from a male protagonist to a female protagonist, when the male was marginalized and the woman became the center.

From a 2013 interview with The Paris Review:

Writers I’d have liked to be as good as, although not like? […] Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top?

LitHub shares key life advice from Le Guin, including this gem:

“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” —from A Wave in the Mind

From 1975:

As recently as December 2017, Entertainment Weekly interviewed Le Guin about her favorite books, for her essay collection No Time to Spare:

Is there a book that changed your life?
Maybe the question should be: Is there a book that didn’t change your life? Reading a book is an experience, and every experience changes your life, a little bit or a lot.

 

We leave you with Le Guin’s stirring speech at the 2014 National Book Awards:

citation

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