Ursula K. Le Guin: Giants of Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those rare sci-fi and fantasy authors whose fiction is widely viewed as literature, while still maintaining the magic and adventure sought by genre fans. Her fantastic and futuristic settings are the backdrop for her take on topics from psychology to sociology; Le Guin first gained widespread recognition with her 1969 novel "The Left Hand of Darkness," considered by many to be the first major work of feminist science fiction.
Le Guin’s work has also seen its share of film adaptations, though Le Guin herself has been disappointed by many of them. When the miniseries “Legend of Earthsea” came out, Le Guin responded in her article A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books:
“In the miniseries, Danny Glover is the only man of color among the main characters (although there are a few others among the spear-carriers). A far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned. When I looked over the script, I realized the producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.”
Race has always been an integral part of Le Guin's stories. Writes Le Guin, “Fantasy heroes of the European tradition were conventionally white--just about universally so in 1968--and darkness of skin was often associated with evil. By simply subverting an expectation, a novelist can undermine a prejudice.”
So far in her career, Le Guin’s novels have reeled in a total of five Hugo awards, six Nebulas, the Gandalf--and SFWA Grand Master awards, and 19 Locus awards--more than any other author. Here are some of her best:
Earthsea is a world of islands, a vast archipelago surrounded by an uncharted ocean. Magic in Earthsea involves speaking the True Speech the language of dragons. Knowing something’s true name, in the True Speech, gives you power over whatever--or whoever--it is. A boy called Sparrowhawk (whose true name is Ged) learns bits of the True Speech from his aunt, a witch from the small, northern island of Gont. Craving more knowledge, he leaves for the island of Roke to attend the school of magic there, not knowing was destined to unleash an evil shadow upon the world, save villages from dragons, become one of Earthsea’s most powerful mages and travel to the Dry Lands of the dead to save life itself. Le Guin puts it best, saying Earthsea is “about two young people finding out what their power, their freedom, and their responsibilities are.”
Thousands of years ago, the planet Hain colonized the galaxy, spreading humanity to hundreds of worlds, including Earth. But the Hainish empire collapsed, and the colonies forgot their origins. This is the universe of the Hainish Cycle, of which The Left Hand of Darkness is a part, and it is in this science fiction series that Le Guin gives her sociological and anthropological explorations full reign. The earliest novel in the ‘Hainish’ chronology, “The Dispossessed,” examines the stagnation of an anarchist utopia, how language can influence culture, and the physics and philosophy of time.
Lavinia is a character from Roman mythology, invented by Virgil, with no life outside his poetry--and in Le Guin’s novel, she knows it. Set in a time when Roma was nothing more than a backwaters village, the princess of the Latins learns through prophecies and portents that she is destined to marry a foreign warrior, that she will be the cause of a brutal war and that her husband must soon die. That man is Aeneas, hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. In Virgil’s epic poem, Lavinia is almost an afterthought, the prize at the end of a long quest; she is mentioned in only a few lines and never speaks. Le Guin’s novel gives her full life, self-conscious and aware of her existence in the imaginings of Virgil.
Thirty-one years in the future, in 2002 (since the book was written in 1971), the United States is impoverished, while Israel and Egypt are locked in a devastating war with Iran. In an intensely overpopulated Portland, Oregon, a man named George Orr constantly abuses drugs to prevent him from dreaming. Orr is plagued with “effective” dreams, which have the ability to completely restructure reality. When he dreams of a world without racism, he awakes to find everyone’s skin a uniform grey; he dreams a solution to overpopulation, and wakes to the aftereffects of a massive plague. At the prompting (and sometimes, hypnosis) of his psychiatrist William Haber, Orr sets out to dream a better world--but each attempt he makes to conjure utopia has its own disastrous side effects.
The Annals of the Western Shore: This YA trilogy imagines a world where people possess wondrous and terrible gifts. But, unlike a typical tale of magic and excitement, Le Guin’s heroes struggle to cope with their power. A young girl named Gry, who has the gift of communicating with animals, refuses to aid hunters by luring wild animals to their deaths, and Orrec takes to wearing a blindfold, lest his power of unmaking accidentally destroys everything around him. Together, they abandon their backwater villages for the wider world, meeting Memer, a girl who falls in love with her people’s ancient writings, banned by her country’s brutal occupiers; and Gavir, a slave with the ability to see the future, who suffers greatly on his quest to find a better life. The first book, “Gifts,” won the PEN 2005 Children’s Literature book, and “Powers,” the third book, was awarded the 2009 Nebula award for best book.