clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ursula K. Le Guin, legendary science fiction and fantasy author, is dead at 88

Le Guin was the author of The Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ursula Le Guin... Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The legendary Ursula K. Le Guin, a giant in the field of literary science fiction and fantasy, died on Monday, the New York Times reports. She was 88 years old.

Le Guin is most celebrated for her Earthsea fantasy trilogy and her science fiction masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. Earthsea, which kicks off with 1968’s The Wizard of Earthsea, tells the story of a boy wizard and his training decades before Harry Potter, and gradually resolves itself into a Taoist struggle to establish a balance of power. It is philosophical and esoteric, and staunchly opposed to the dualistic morality of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.

Her 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness, meanwhile, takes place on an alien planet without gender and is anthropological in its interests. “I eliminated gender to find out what was left,” Le Guin later wrote.

Le Guin’s writing is fundamentally moral, which she often said was intrinsic to her genre and its emphasis on the power of magic and imagination. Fantasy, she told the Guardian in 2005, is “about power — just look at Tolkien. It’s a means to examine what it does to the person who has it, and to others.”

And where power can dehumanize, she argued, we need imagination to fix the resulting wound: “If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly,” she explained. “Little kids can’t do it; babies are morally monsters — completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy.”

Le Guin was a staunch champion of the intellectual strength of science fiction and fantasy at a time when they were often relegated without a thought to the realm of the unserious “genre ghetto.” She spoke out against authors who used the tropes of SFF while refusing to acknowledge what they were writing, which led to a very public debate with Margaret Atwood over the boundaries of SFF and a very public shaming of Kazuo Ishiguro.

Le Guin was just as outspoken and unforgiving in her feminism. In 2016, Letters of Note unearthed a scathing letter she penned in 1971 when asked to blurb a science fiction anthology that contained no stories by women writers. “I cannot imagine myself blurbing a book, the first of a new series and hence presumably exemplary of the series, which not only contains no writing by women, but the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room,” she wrote. “That would not be magnanimity, but foolishness. Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.”

Le Guin received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Award Foundation in 2014. In her acceptance speech, she spoke prophetically of the difficult years ahead for the country — and in praise of the quality that runs so freely through her books: imagination.

“Hard times are coming,” she said, “when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

Ursula K. Le Guin was our greatest realist of a larger reality. There’s comfort in the fact that even after her death, the many worlds she created will live on.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.