Women of Speculative Fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin

As an author, Ursula K. Le Guin is notable not only for writing prolifically within the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but also for the pertinent themes her works examine: feminism as well as race, ecology and social-political concerns. Writing entertaining stories is an important skill that I don’t want to undervalue, and not every book needs to have a super-serious Message – but if you can write entertaining stories that also happen to explore highly thought-provoking questions, that’s something even better.

Born Ursula Kroeber in 1929, she had a very early interest in writing, submitting her first short story to a magazine when she was only 11. (It was rejected, but still). Many of her thematic interests were likely influenced by her anthropologist parents, as well as a vast array of literary inspirations:

“Once I learned to read, I read everything. I read all the famous fantasies…And then my brother and I blundered into science fiction when I was 11 or 12. Early Asimov, things like that. But that didn’t have too much effect on me. It wasn’t until I came back to science fiction and discovered Sturgeon – but particularly Cordwainer Smith. … I read the story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, and it just made me go, “Wow! This stuff is so beautiful, and so strange, and I want to do something like that.”

She studied French and Italian literature in college, ultimately acquiring a Master’s degree. Traveling in France in 1953, she met and married Charles le Guin. She began to divide her time between writing and caring for their children – three of them by 1964. Her stories were accepted for publication fairly regularly by the 1960s. Though her first novels were rejected (fairly common, as any aspiring writer knows) she ultimately achieved considerable acclaim for such works as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. In Rocannon’s World, she coined the term ansible, now in common usage in sci-fi, for a communication device capable of instantaneous transmission across the long distances of space. She has gone on to receive multiple awards and honors, and even in her advanced years she has continued to be a prominent voice in the speculative fiction community.

A bit about her work: The Left Hand of Darkness explores our notions of gender identity as the story involves an encounter with an androgynous race. The Lathe of Heaven involves the peculiar case of a man who can dream things into reality. A Wizard of Earthsea, a work of fantasy, is a deceptively simple tale of a novice wizard who must defeat a manifestation of his own inner darkness.

Most of her characters are non-white, an attempt to more accurately reflect the world’s population where white-skinned people are in fact in the minority. They frequently struggle with problems that can’t be solved by brute force or by simply being stronger than their enemy. There is a marvelous outside-the-box ethos to her stories that is highly refreshing in genres that are unfortunately overstuffed with white males writing exclusively about white males (or, occasionally, their beautiful but underdeveloped white female love interests). It’s one feature of a broader truth in her stories: anything is possible.

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