Sci Friday: Venture Into the Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin


~Post by Marie; Original Artwork by Alex Rosental

All of my childhood summers were spent in the small coastal town of Manzanita, Oregon, the town where my mother grew up.  My grandmother lived in the same house for many years after my mother left home, and it was full of interesting artifacts from my mother’s past.  It had shelves of old books, jackets and shirts from several fashion eras previous, and boxes of old photographs and letters.  One typical rainy Oregon day, my mother and I were going slowly through one such box when she pulled out a postcard.  She flipped it over, read it, and passed it over for my review.  It was written in a scrawling cursive, thanking my grandmother for watching over the children, signed “Ursula”.  It turns out my grandmother, when she lived in Portland, Oregon, would watch Ursula’s three children from time to time, and so grew to know her on a more personal level.  “This lady,” my mother explained, “writes some really wonderful stories.”  She walked into the next room and pulled a tattered slender volume from the rows of old books.  “In fact, here is one called A Wizard of Earthsea that I loved when I read it years ago.”  The cover was a rich purple color, with an image of a caped man standing before an imposing-looking fortress perched on craggy rocks above a sea.  There she was, Ursula K. Le Guin, her name written in stylized letters right in the middle.  I immediately opened the book and began reading.  Unfolding before me was an entire world with a rich culture, complex geography, imaginative names for places and new creatures, and a compelling tale about a young wizard discovering his powers and how they must be used only to maintain the delicate Equilibrium of the Universe.

wizard of earthsea 2

Ursula still lives in Portland, though her children are all now grown.  Though she’s been living there since 1958, she wasn’t a born Oregonian.  She came into the world on October 21, 1929, just days before Black Tuesday, to her mother Theodora Krakow Brown, a writer, and father Alfred Kroeber, a prominent anthropologist professor at University of California at Berkley.  She first learned to write at the age of five, and hasn’t looked back since.  She began submitting her writings for publication at the age of eleven, and even though her first submission was actually rejected, she persevered.  She went to Berkley High School with Philip K. Dick, and went on to get her undergraduate’s degree in French and Italian language at Radcliffe in Massachusetts and her Masters at Columbia University in New York City.  While studying in France, she met a historian named Charles Le Guin, whom she married in 1953.

ursula k le guin

In 1969, she finally received wide recognition and acclaim for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a paragon of literary Sci Fi if ever there was one.  She was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula award for this well-crafted and complex story about a lone envoy of an intergalactic organization trying to understand the strange cultural, physical and spiritual difference of the humans of the planet Gethen, or “Winter” as it is called by the ambassador.  It is a harsh, cold and frozen world for most of the year.  The people of Gethen have the unique trait of being androgynous for most of their existence, entering into “kemmer” only for a few days every lunar cycle, and then living the rest of the time unencumbered by overwhelming reproductive impulses.  Truly this book deserves the high praise it regularly receives from critics and readers alike.  Le Guin is adept at subtly weaving in and developing complex issues like sexuality, duality, honor, patriotism, and love in her narrative, building it on the framework of a compelling story.  The book switches between the perspectives of Genly Ai, the envoy; excerpts from the diary of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, prime minister of one country on Gethen; and stories and legends from the cold world of Winter.  The story is driven by the archaic and often incomprehensible maneuverings of the political elite of Gethen and its countries, and the struggle of Ai to convince the inhabitants of this world that he is not only from space, but also that it is in the best interest of Gethan to join his intergalactic organization and advance their civilization forward.  There are many musings and much contemplation about power, what it means to be a citizen of a country, or a planet, or a whole race, and which differences are the ones that truly matter.

In 1971, she published The Lathe of Heaven a speculative work about a future Portland, where it rains all the time due to global warming, and global hunger and depression are real and tangible problems.  It further develops Le Guin’s proclivity for writing about Taoist principles, and the need for balance in the world in order for it to go on spinning.  George Orr, the protagonist, is Equilibrium.  His dreams, sometimes, will become the new reality of the world upon his waking.  But, paradoxically, he can never prove that anything was any different than everyone thinks it ever was, until he comes under the fateful care of Dr. William Haber.  Haber attempts to manipulate Orr’s dreams so that when Orr wakes, the world is a better place, as envisioned by Haber.  And yet each time Orr wakes up, horrific unintended changes in reality are the result.  What we take away from this interesting little story is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and every action has unforeseen consequences.

lathe of heaven

From there she has written many more highly acclaimed novels, including a whole quartet of the Earthsea saga, The Dispossessed which also won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and a translation of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.  She is widely recognized as one of the prominent and formative contemporary science fiction writers, and continues to write and produce works today.

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