Writer Ursula K. Le Guin has died at the age of 88. Arguably Oregon’s greatest writer, she was a one-woman revolution in fiction and fantasy.
For Le Guin’s readers, every reading was an event. Decades after publishing her most cherished novels, she was still packing in crowds. In 2016, at Portland’s Broadway Books, Alice Coy, a fan with cerulean blue hair, said she’d come all the way from Scotland to pay homage.
“I decided some years ago I wanted to be in the same room as Ursula K. Le Guin somewhere in my life,” Coy said. “She’s been my favorite author since I was a kid.”
Another reader at the same event, Louis Falsetti, rolled up his sleeve to show off tattoos honoring the two planets, Urras and Anarres, featured in her Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel, “The Dispossessed.” Falsetto said he’d had them done just a few months prior.
“I read the book over the summer and it made me cry,” he said. “I mean, most of her books make me cry. I just felt such a strong connection to it.”
Physically tiny and quiet, but intense, Le Guin could command a room with her bear-trap intellect, wry humor and elegantly structured prose.
Le Guin’s brother, the literary scholar Karl Kroeber, once wrote in an essay, “My sister’s writing has convinced me that (as I had long suspected) literary biography is useless for understanding literature.
“Every story of my sister’s is full of references to things and events and relationships I recognize. But to know these sources is to know nothing of significance about the stories as stories … . Literary art consists in transforming one kind of reality, that of physical experience, into another kind of reality, that of literary experience.”
Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in Northern California on Oct. 21, 1929. The daughter of intellectuals, she drank deeply from the academic and cultural atmosphere of Berkeley. She met her husband, Charles — a historian and writer — on a steamship bound for France in 1953. They ultimately settled in Portland in 1958, where Charles became a history professor at Portland State University. They settled in to read, write and raise three children together.
The LeGuins’ home was at the heart of an early northwest Portland cultural outpost, defined by upscale historic homes, affordable artists’ apartments and some industrial space.
Photographer Roger Dorband became friends with the Le Guins in the mid-80s. They vacationed together in Harney County, and Dorband collaborated with Le Guin on two books of images and poetry, including a 1993 love letter to the Le Guins’ neighborhood, “Blue Moon Over Thurman Street.”
“She told me once,” Dorband recalled, “that over 10 years she got used to the thump of a manuscript on the front porch that had been rejected. I always wondered how she sustained herself.”
Probably, he surmises, it was sheer tough-mindedness.
“I think she saw the path was there. It might be a difficult path, at first, but she was going to get there.”
Le Guin herself told OPB in 2015 that those years before her breakthrough did afford her one advantage.
“Lots of time to practice!” she said, laughing. “Lots of time with no feedback. And feedback is now taken for granted by most young writers who put their work out on the net and get criticism from anybody who wants to. There were no writers’ workshops. The writer’s peer group had not yet been invented.”
She later joined a formidable group of women writers, including Barbara Drake, Molly Gloss and others. But Le Guin’s early work was formed largely within her own spacious imagination.
It’s commonly thought that science fiction is a form that looks inward, turning writers’ brains inside out. But Le Guin’s powerful novels reversed that current. Novels like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed” played out on worlds that took political ideas to their logical extremes, pushing fantasy to its limits. In the case of “The Dispossessed,” Le Guin began with the idea of a utopian anarchist planet and drove that as far out as she could. What would life be like in such a place? How would politics work? How would its people relate to other societies?
While other genre writers had experimented in social themes, Le Guin’s style was unique in the worlds of straight fiction and fantasy.
“For many years, [fantasy] was an unwanted stepchild to literature,” White said. “Ursula Le Guin helped science fiction move uptown so to speak, to move out of the gutter. Because her writing was so clearly literary the people couldn’t ignore it,” said Donna White, the author of “Dancing With Dragons: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Critics.”
Le Guin’s complex themes may have some parallels in the works of Kurt Vonnegut or Margaret Atwood, but she had few peers in her ability to craft psychologically rich characters and fully realized worlds.
Richard Erlich, who wrote one of the leading scholarly surveys on Le Guin’s work, “Coyote’s Song: The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin,” pointed out the astonishing range of forms Le Guin mastered over the years.
“The science fiction ghetto isn’t the only ghetto around. There’s poetry, there’s also the New York literary establishment. Le Guin showed she could hold her own in all those areas,” he said.
In providing sophisticated, well-written stories — many accessible to teenagers — Le Guin raised the bar for the evolving field of young adult literature. notes she never talked down to her readers, providing an experience young people could enjoy in their teens while returning later to find new layers to Le Guin’s fantasy storytelling.
“If you want to know what a society takes seriously,” he said, “look at what stories they tell their kids. Le Guin was there early, and she set the example.”
Amid the innovations she dreamed up was a piece of technology so inventive and durable, it became a fixture in worlds outside Le Guin’s books. Le Guin realized early on in her Hainish cycle she’d need some plausible explanation for how characters would interact with each other over interstellar distances. Her solution was the ansible, a device allowing instant person-to-person communication across light-years. Orson Scott Card found the idea so useful, he adopted it in his novel.
Half a dozen others followed suit.
Not content to innovate in imaginative science, Le Guin consistently pushed herself on social issues. Her protagonists were people of color, transgender people. They fell in love across lines of race and class.
“She challenged the default setting for a fantasy protagonist. Nobody ever stated it, but the traditional protagonist in fantasy was a white male. And she just decided that her heroes weren’t going to be white males. Ged, the hero of the Earthsea series, is dark-skinned, and all but explicitly identified as an indigenous person,” White said.
“She just doesn’t make a big deal about it,” White said. “She just casts them that way in the book. The illustrators who do the covers of her books are always trying to make her main characters look white, and she object[ed] to that because she didn’t make them white.”
As the years went by, award after award rolled in. The books kept coming — hypnotic poetry, an update of her guide to writing and a personal blog that tackled a delightful range of news and subjects with Le Guin’s characteristic wit and precision. But after 2008’s historically-themed, “Lavinia” — Le Guin’s personal favorite — the novels stopped coming.
Her friend Roger Dorband noted in 2015 that as Le Guin aged, she lost the stamina for long-form fiction. But he says she didn’t seem to mind returning to her first love, poetry.
“Poetry is so demanding to express inner states and very personal things,” Dorband said. “Spare works like that offer plenty of challenge. And she ha[d] a fairly large family with grandchildren, and was so much in demand publicly. I don’t think she sits around wishing she had a novel going.”
Le Guin was generous in talking to younger writers about the problems of the day. Her guide to writing was republished in 2015, amended for changing digital and market interests. In later years, her politics commanded nearly as much attention as her writing. Her 2014 speech accepting honors for her distinguished contributions to American letters at the National Book Awards made headlines. Le Guin delivered a stunning indictment against the commercialism she saw running roughshod over the industry.
“I see sales departments given control over editorial,” she said. “I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries, for an e-book, six or seven times more than they charge customers.” She went on to blast Amazon.com’s corporate war with Hachette Book Group, and blacklisting of Hachette authors, which Le Guin interpreted as a “corporate fatwa.”
“And I see a lot of us,” she continued, “the producers who write the books and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.”
The following year, Le Guin told OPB that over her career she was keenly aware of expectations people had of women writers.
“The automatic judgment of a woman writer that she’s going to write like a woman — which is not like a man — and that writing is manly.” Even in the modern era, she warned of “the disappearing of women writers,” whose works are consigned to books out-of-print as soon as they die.
Le Guin ensured that she, for one, would not suffer that fate. Her works can be found across six or seven sections of any bookstore or library, from poetry to children’s literature to criticism and essays, to her powerful, wondrous novels.
Ursula Le Guin is survived by her husband, Charles, three children and four grandchildren.