Update: You can now stream Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on PBS’ website until August 30.
Without Ursula K. Le Guin, science fiction and fantasy would not be where it is today. This year, her massively influential novel The Left Hand of Darkness turns 50 years old, and to mark the occasion, PBS is premiering an award-winning documentary on the beloved author’s life and career this week.
Called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, the documentary had its world premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival last year and is part of THIRTEEN’s American Masters series. According to a PBS press release published by the School Library Journal, it features interviews with the author, her family and friends, and the generation of sci-fi and fantasy writers she influenced, like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Chabon, as well as gorgeous animations illustrating her work as she reads.
Here’s the full synopsis, according to the press release:
American Masters – Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin begins with Le Guin’s early struggle to get published in the overwhelmingly male and realism-dominated climate of the early 1960s. Her first major breakthrough came with the young adult novel “A Wizard of Earthsea,” set in a magical archipelago inhabited by wizards and dragons. Along with groundbreaking novels like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed,” “Earthsea” crowned Le Guin as the queen of science fiction by the end of the decade. But as a woman and a genre writer, she still faced marginalization that hobbled her career until the last decade of her life, when she won the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award and became the second living author to have their work anthologized by the Library of Congress.
The film dives into Le Guin’s childhood, steeped in the myths and stories of Native Americans she heard growing up in Berkeley, California, as the daughter of prominent 19th century anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and writer Theodora Kroeber, author of the influential book “Ishi in Two Worlds.” This deep childhood understanding of cultural relativism infused her work with a unique perspective; her otherworldly societies are all in some way reflections of our own.
At the heart of the film is Le Guin’s intimate journey of self-discovery as she comes into her own as a major feminist author. “What I was doing was being a woman pretending to think like a man,” she says, reflecting on why her early novels put men at the center of the action. But as second-wave feminism crashed into the science fiction world in the 1970s, Le Guin recognized her own internalized notions about heroism and power. Initially defensive, she found truth in the criticisms of her work. When revisiting the realm of “Earthsea,” she turned her gaze to its women, instead of powerful male wizards. The result was a transformation that echoed throughout the rest of her oeuvre. By embracing her own identity and learning to write as a woman, she eventually rose to the height of her literary power.
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will have its U.S. premiere on PBS on August 2.