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An award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, Ursula K. Le Guin has infused her writing with deep, meaningful explorations of the meaning and importance of culture, language, belief, and gender roles. Her stories, written both for adults and young adults, reflect her interest in Eastern philosophy and anthropology, and have proven consistently popular and successful across age ranges.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Cosmopolitan Upbringing
Le Guin is the daughter of a writer, Theodora Kroeber, and a pioneering anthropologist, Alfred Louis Kroeber. She seems to have acquired from her family background a double orientation, both scholarly and humanistic, that shows in all of her writings. The Kroeber household was a stimulating environment to grow up in: Theodora Kroeber describes their summer home in the Napa Valley as a gathering place for scientists, students, writers, and California Indians. In addition to exposing her to history and anthropology, Le Guin’s formative environment gave her a perspective on religion different from that of many Americans. She told Jean W. Ross in an interview for CA,”I was brought up in an unreligious household; there was no religious practice of any kind. There was also no feeling that any religion was better than another, or worse; they just weren’t part of our life.”
This was the milieu in which Le Guin began to write, and it may help explain the number of scientists in her stories, who are nearly always humane men deeply concerned about the effect and value of their research. Though she makes no claims to being a scientist herself, she understands what it is to pursue a scientific goal, and the philosophy that underlies anthropological thought, in particular, informs all of her work.
Launching a Writing Career on Her Own Terms
Le Guin started writing, according to an introductory note in her short-story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975), at about age five. She wrote poetry, some of which was published, and stories, which were not. In the note she mentions a science-fiction story written in 1942, when she was twelve. Le Guin began her professional writing career with short fiction. Her first short story, ”An die Musik,” appeared in the Western Humanities Review in 1961. A later story, ”The Dowry of Angyar,” appeared originally in Amazing Science Fiction in 1964 and provided the impetus for Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966). ”I always wanted to write, and I always knew it would be hard to make a living at it,” she explained to Boston Globe contributor Maureen Dezell. ”I was very arrogant and wanted to be free to write what I wanted to write and see if I could get it published on my own terms. I did, eventually. But it took a long time.” Le Guin has been rewarded for her persistence and her vision on numerous occasions, winning the prestigious Nebula and Hugo awards for her short works, including The Word for World Is Forest (1976) and ”The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1974).
Cycles and Earthseas
Rocannon’s World began a series of works commonly referred to as the Hainish Cycle. These novels and short stories depict the descendants of the first race of humanity, which arose on the fictitious planet Hain and colonized other planets until war isolated the various settlements. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), for which Le Guin received Hugo and Nebula Awards, is generally regarded as one of her best novels. In this work, which continues the Hainish Cycle, an envoy attempts to persuade members of an alien world to join a federation of allied planets known as the Ekuman of Known Worlds. Interwoven with the protagonist’s narrative are ethnological reports, accounts of native legends and myths, descriptions of religious ceremonies, and entries from the diaries of the envoy’s closest ally. The Left Hand ofDarkness is particularly noted for its creation of an androgynous alien culture, through which Le Guin explores the ramifications of a society in which individual identities and social status are divorced from stereotypes of gender. Through this approach, Le Guin emphasizes a favorite theme: the idea that unity is achieved through the interaction and tension of such opposites as likeness and unlikeness, native and alien, male and female. The Dispossessed (1974), another winner of Hugo and Nebula awards, garnered praise for its complex characterizations and well-integrated social and political ideas.
Le Guin’s Earthsea tetralogy is a series based on magic that appeals both to adult and young adult readers in the manner of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Depicting a world that is both like and unlike our own, Le Guin’s Earthsea is a land of forests, islands, and bodies of water that incorporates a variety of nations and customs; although Earthsea is governed by secular rulers, its real laws are made by a hierarchy of wizards, men whose inborn affinity for magic is augmented by disciplined study that teaches them to know, and to be able to name, the essence of each person or thing in the world. The mages of Earthsea are also responsible for keeping the balance or equilibrium of the world: since order is not imposed by a deity, the wizards and other powerful humans act or refrain from acting based on their insights into both the world and themselves. Thus, individual responsibility and the acceptance of oneself as both good and evil are pivotal qualities in maintaining the balance of Earthsea. Le Guin depicts her wizards as artists, poets, and shamans who devote themselves to retaining an integrated universe, a world in which light and darkness, life and death are equally acknowledged and revered. Throughout her quartet, Le Guin stresses the importance of self-knowledge through each stage of life, especially as it relates to the world. In the first three novels, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972), the main character, Ged, overcomes pride and fear and learns to accept himself and his own mortality as well as to love and trust others; as Archmage of Earthsea, he succeeds in laying the groundwork for a just and peaceful society through his selfless and profoundly dangerous acts of will. In the fourth novel, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), Le Guin suggests that the responsibility for maintaining world equilibrium has shifted from male wizards such as Ged, whose final act as Archmage causes his loss of power, to women, reflecting a growing interest in Le Guin’s fiction in feminist themes.
In addition to her novels, Le Guin has written stories throughout her career that have appeared in numerous science fiction and literary publications. Many of these stories are collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975), Orsinian Tales (1976), and The Compass Rose (1982). Orsinian Tales has been acclaimed for the manner in which it weaves elements of European history, specifically references to events in Central Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II, into a fantastical narrative. Significantly, critics have remarked that Le Guin’s Orsinian stories, written in the 1950s and 1960s, constitute the chrysalis out of which her later, and more remote, extraterrestrial fantasies evolved.
Le Guin also offered up a translated version of Chinese poet Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the central text of the Taoist belief system. Her interest was first inspired by her father, an avid reader of the text. She reported that she had been working on the project for forty years. Larry Smith, in a review in Parabola, says that Le Guin’s version ”may trouble Taoist purists,” but that it is ”undeniably refreshing, capturing a language that is casual and clear, reflective and pointed, full of the wise humor of the Way.” In her introduction she describes the Tao Te Ching as ”the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing.”
Works in Literary Context
Le Guin has been praised for expanding the scope of the fantasy and science-fiction genres by combining conventional elements of science fiction with more traditional literary techniques, while offering speculations on alternative societies and philosophies. Her works employ psychic phenomena, including telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition, and commonly incorporate the philosophies of Taoism and Zen, resulting in themes of reciprocity and unity. Le Guin stresses the need for individuals and societies to balance such dualities as order with chaos and harmony with rebellion to achieve wholeness. In her Earthsea tetralogy, Le Guin addresses themes common to many of her novels and short fictions: alienation, liberation, and ecological, social, and self awareness.
Critics have often found it difficult to classify Ursula K. Le Guin: while some consider her writing science fiction or fantasy, Le Guin herself discounts any narrow genre categorizations. She told CA that ”some of my fiction is ‘science fiction,’ some of it is ‘fantasy,’ some of it is ‘realist,’ and some of it is ‘magical realism.”’
Using Science Fiction to Explore Metaphysics
Le Guin’s stories involve reciprocal relationships. There is a sort of golden rule in her fictional world, which states that whatever you touch touches you. This golden rule has a scientific backing in ecology; it also has philosophical underpinnings in Taoism and in Zen. Le Guin is uncomfortable when critics claim her as a great and original thinker, for she works best with what she calls ”fortune cookie ideas,” ideas proposed by someone else and capable of expression in very simple terms. Beginning with such an idea—ecological balance, for example—she can show through her stories how simple terms hide a mass of complexity and contradiction that surfaces only when the idea interacts with human lives.
The theme of equilibrium between opposing forces works on several levels within the Earthsea books, for example. On the most immediate and recognizable level is the integration of man with himself. In A Wizard of Earthsea it is the young mage, or wizard, Ged who undertakes the journey to maturity and self-knowledge; in The Tombs of Atuan, it is the girl-priestess, Tenar; and in The Farthest Shore, it is the young prince Arran, accompanying Ged on a search for the source of an evil spreading through Earthsea.
Le Guin has incorporated wholesale the question of defining humanity as a dominant theme in her work. In her several major novels, she brings into conflict beings that by appearances and behavior could be human, though there is some factor present that creates doubt or, on the other hand, misguided certainty. Le Guin defines ”other” as ”the being who is different from yourself.” When she uses the term regarding her own work, however, Le Guin means something apart from the usual robot-alien-telepath-superhuman. Her others tend to be less different from us than those of most writers and deliberately suggest conventional humanity. Generally, in Le Guin’s work important other-human differences give way to important similarities.
”Two Le Guin novels of unquestionably high standing, even among readers who generally do not care for science fiction, are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed,” writes Modern Fiction Studies contributor Keith N. Hull. ”In these novels Le Guin… describes herself as writing science fiction based on ‘social science, psychology, anthropology [and] history,’…. [The result] is an emphasis on culture.” The Left Hand of Darkness explores the themes of sexual identity, incest, xenophobia, fidelity, and betrayal in a tale of an Earth ambassador, Genly Ai, who is sent to the planet of Gethen, whose inhabitants are androgynous, or both male and female. Through his relationship with a native, Estraven, Ai gains understanding both of the consequences of his fixed sexual orientation and of Gethenian life. As in many of her works, Le Guin incorporates a social message in her science fiction tale. In The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, another character is an alien in a strange culture; the physicist Shevek, however, is also at odds with his home planet’s values. He is devoted to the spread of knowledge, but the development of his theories will inevitably bring his isolated colonial planet and its mother-planet into contact, although the two cultures bitterly oppose one another.
Works in Critical Context
”A significant amount of science fiction has been profoundly thoughtful about the situation of contemporary humanity in the light of its possible futures and its imaginable alternatives,” writes Derek de Solla Price in the New Republic. ”In recent years, no [writer] inside the field of science fiction or outside of it [has] done more to create a modern conscience than . . . Ursula K. Le Guin.”
Le Guin, however, ”is not competing with [George] Orwell or [Ernest] Hemingway,” according to George Edgar Slusser in his book The Farthest Shores of Ursula Le Guin. ”Her social analysis is acute, but its purpose is not indignation or reform. She has no social program, offers no panaceas.” And a Cambridge Review: Fantasy in Literature contributor finds Le Guin an elegant, but not a light writer: not to be trifled with. Superficially, her work charms because it has all the glitter of high intelligence and efficiency.”
The Earthsea Trilogy
Ursula K. Le Guin’s immense reputation as a fantasy writer for children is founded essentially on the Earthsea series. Considered by Le Guin to be among her best work, it displays a holistic conception of the universe. As Robert Scholes suggests in a Hollins Critic article, ”Where C. S. Lewis worked out of a specifically Christian set of values, Ursula Le Guin works not with a theology but with an ecology, a cosmology, a reverence for the universe as a self-regulating structure.” Writing in Joseph D. Olander and Martin Henry Greenberg’s Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret P. Esmonde suggests that ”all of [the characters’] journeys symbolize the journey every human being must make, one through pain and fear, aided only by trust in the goodness of man, hand holding hand, to the acceptance of mortality.” The third book in the series, The Farthest Shore, earned Le Guin a National Book Award, and the fourth, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
- Bittner, James. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1984.
- Cogell, Elizabeth Cummins. Ursula K. Le Guin: A Primary and Secondary References::. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
- –. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
- Slusser, George Edgar. Between Two Worlds: The Literary Dilemma ofUrsula K. Le Guin. Second edition. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995.
- Wayne, Kathryn Ross. Redefining Moral Education: Life, Le Guin, and Language. San Francisco: Austin & Winfield, 1994.
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