5 reasons Ursula K. Le Guin was a gift to science fiction

By: H&I Staff    Posted: January 26, 2018, 2:01PM

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Pip R. Lagenta

On January 22, world renowned science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin died at the age of 88. As she was a pioneer of the genre, it’s hard to imagine where sci-fi would be these days without her. She submitted her first story to Astounding Science Fiction at the age of 11. Even though it didn’t get selected, she didn’t stop writing. 

With her first piece being published in 1959, Le Guin started making a name for herself in the 1960s, through a number of short stories and novels like City of Illusions and The Left Hand of Darkness. In addition to being known as one of the greatest science-fiction authors of the century, she’s also known for being unapologetically herself, in a genre mostly dominated by male writers. Here are some of the coolest facts about Le Guin.


She was the child of anthropologists

Le Guin was consistently praised for her portrayals of people of color and people of all (or no) genders. This can be attributed to the fact that her father was the award-winning anthropologist and professor Alfred Kroeber and her mother was writer and anthropologist Theodora Kracaw Kroeber Quinn. Her biography on Thought Co. stated:

"[Le Guin’s] work reflects a deep interest of the field of anthropology, reflected in the amount of care she puts into creating other cultures as well as other worlds. Her work continues to offer an alternative to the capitalistic, male-centered ideals of the West that rule most genre fiction of today. Her own work is filled with a desire for balance and unity in society, reflected in the ideals of Taoism, Jungian psychology, ecology, and human liberation."

In a column Le Guin wrote for Slate, she referenced this reputation, saying:

"As an anthropologist's daughter, I am intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice, an act of extreme arrogance. In a totally invented fantasy world, or in a far-future science fiction setting, in the rainbow world we can imagine, this risk is mitigated. That's the beauty of science fiction and fantasy—freedom of invention."

Image: Wikimedia Commons


She wrote five novels before being published

Between 1951 and 1961, Le Guin submitted five novels to publishers — and they were all rejected for being "inaccessible." While a decade of rejection might make most people pack up their typewriter and pursue a new career, Le Guin carried on. 

She even published a rejection letter she got for The Left Hand of Darkness that accused her novel of being "endlessly complicated" and "unreadable." The book went on to win the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award and it was listed second on Locus’ "All-Time Best SF Novels."

Image: Amazon


She didn’t consider herself a science fiction author

While she’s most known for her contributions to the sci-fi genre, that wasn’t what she wanted to be known for. In 2016, a New York Times feature called her "America’s greatest living science-fiction writer." She said she’s an "American novelist." In addition to being inspired by fantasy authors, Le Guin also drew plenty of influence from feminist, fantasy and even children’s writers, as well as Norse mythology. In fact, during an interview with The Paris Review, she said:

"Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions."

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Gorthian


She wasn’t having any whitewashing of her work

Le Guin made a point to include plenty of diversity in her stories, because, as she put it, the majority of humans are not white. So in 2004, when what was then known as the “Sci Fi Channel” produced a miniseries based on her Earthsea series and cast Shawn Ashmore, a white actor, as Ged instead of a Native American, she took her displeasure to Slate. She wrote a column titled, "A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books." In the column, she said:

"I have heard, not often, but very memorably, from readers of color who told me that the Earthsea books were the only books in the genre that they felt included in—and how much this meant to them, particularly as adolescents, when they'd found nothing to read in fantasy and science fiction except the adventures of white people in white worlds."

Image: SyFy


She was a champion for other female writers

Le Guin was asked to contribute to a science-fiction anthology in 1987. Publishers just wanted a short blurb from her, as the book was meant to bring attention to up-and-coming writers, but Le Guin wasn’t having it… because the entire book was made up of male authors. She wrote a letter to Harcourt, accusing the book’s tone of being "self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club or locker room."