So on Tuesday, Ursula K. Le Guin died. Here’s the NYT article about it. If you aren’t familiar with her work, but still read fantasy or science fiction, you’re familiar with her impact. As I told someone yesterday: she may have been 88, but she seemed like she would just always be there. She’d been writing since nearly my lifetime before my life started, if you follow me.
I’m not sure I’m up to a really long post or anything. This isn’t as personal to me as it was when Terry Pratchett died, but it’s still a hell of a blow. Le Guin shaped what I thought literature could do. She wrote novels about people without gender, people without capitalism, and always, people with a deep sense of decency. I really discovered Le Guin’s work in grad school, with The Left Hand of Darkness. This surprises approximately no one who’s read that book, I know.
I actually have a forthcoming academic piece that’s about Le Guin, in part. She had a thorny relationship with academic work. She grew up on it, and knew more about anthropology than some professionals. Apparently she’s read some people’s theses and dissertations when they were about her, and sent back notes. I had hoped, very quietly, in the back of my mind, to send her a copy of my article when it was published. I won’t have the chance, now.
Right now, to me, there are three Le Guins. First there was the Earthsea author. I really liked the first Earthsea novel, but didn’t get around to reading the rest. I read it at the wrong time, I think. I wanted something from fantasy that wasn’t what I was used to, but I had a specific idea of what it should be instead. Earthsea wasn’t that. It is, gleefully, just itself, I think.
Second is the Left Hand author. The person who simply shrugged at the idea of gender and made an entire planet where people who are always one gender are the perverts. Is this book the reason I’m not significantly transphobic? I used to wonder when I would find my old person hill to die on. Do you know what I mean? Everyone is liberal in their youth, about something anyway. And everyone is conservative in old age. That’s the common idea, at least. So I wondered, in a weird, detached way, if trans rights would be the thing I was kneejerky about and had to mouth words I didn’t feel.
Well, no, not at all. And I wonder if it’s partly because I read this book before I, in my sheltered way, encountered the issue in real life. There’s no way to know, of course, but I like to think Le Guin would be glad to hear she inoculated me against a stupid form of hate.
Finally, there’s the author of The Dispossessed. This book. Daaaang. I think Left Hand hit me harder, emotionally, the first time. But I’ve gone back to The Dispossessed in the interim. It gets even better. It’s Le Guin’s attack on capitalism, in which she points out that it infects every aspect of our lives. I can attest to that. I am horribly, dreadfully transactional. I was raised, and still internalize, the idea that I need to pay back anything given to me. And while I have learned to ask for things and accept things that I can’t pay back, it bothers me, and I feel terribly selfish about it. That doesn’t just mean gifts, by the way. It means basic human kindness, and the moments of connection with those I love the most. I am infected with capitalism, and may never be purged. But Le Guin could imagine what it would be like to be totally, entirely free of it, even if it only lasted for a few moments. And that’s a gift.
Le Guin, more than many other science fiction and fantasy authors, imagined other ways of being. She didn’t just imagine other worlds, she imagined what it would really be like to live in them. She didn’t obsess over constellations or technology, though she effortlessly handled those. She obsessed over what the experience of a thinking, feeling creature would be in those circumstances. And she made all her readers better at that, too.
So, to honor Le Guin’s memory, I’m going to try to spend time actively imagining what it must be like to be other people, other things. I have no idea how that will go. But there’s probably already one of Le Guin’s books about it.