Yesterday I learned that legendary novelist Ursula K. Le Guin had died. I felt as though we had been robbed. Idolatry was considered a sin in my religious upbringing, and warnings about hero-worship were often justified when heroes failed, disappointing our expectations. In the case of Le Guin—a woman who rallied for the redefinition of structures, ‘boxes’ and boundaries for what was considered literary success and singular greatness—my level of worship seems justified. She never ended up disappointing me.
I remember submitting my first manuscript—60,000 words in total!—to a literary competition in primary school. I can’t recall the plot, but I know it was about dragons and involved a fascist dictator as the main antagonist. I did not win a prize. I received a consolatory letter with judges’ comments, among them a criticism that some of the entries were ‘derivative’. I didn’t understand what that meant so I looked it up. Derivative is perhaps the unkindest thing you can say to me nowadays. It still stings. The advice in that letter was to read widely and regularly.
I was raised on a diet of science fiction and high fantasy, including books by David Eddings, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Emily Rodda and eventually, naturally, JRR Tolkien’s magnificent universe of Middle-Earth. When my father presented me with the books, he told me they depicted ‘the epic battle between good and evil.’ Fantasy and non-mainstream fiction had always been presented to me as a battle of sorts, as a tale of morality. Colours were used to distinguish moral from immoral, at times distinct as black and white. Slavery, fascism, destruction of the environment were discriminately related to the skin tone of a character, the garment they wore, or the tribe they belonged to. Cultural relativism existed in the majority of fantasy literature I read. At the time I had no clue.
Growing up, being ‘good’ was a childhood concern of my mine. I wanted to be moral, kind and just. In my early teens I envisaged a future career in law, naively believing it was the pathway to righteousness. When I quailed, my Catholic upbringing often intervened, exacting penance in the form of feeling shame for my ‘bad’ acts (lying to my parents, rolling my eyes at my teachers, making fun of my sisters). For me, these binaries justified the traditional moralistic narrative of early science fiction and fantasy, which in turn, reinforced my own values.
The Left Hand of Darkness was not that type of story.
I read The Left Hand of Darkness in high school—my first novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. My copy is old, and treasured. It may have been one of the few books that my mother didn’t purchase for me. Although I can’t recall exactly, I’m certain I bought it somewhere second-hand. It taught me about nuance, of subtleties in meaning and intention. About character and choice. It taught me that the world did not have to be—nor was it—binary nor monochromatic. Many of Le Guin’s stories were instrumental in dissolving the belief that life was one big struggle between two sides of me. David Mitchell, in his essay on Earthsea (Le Guin’s fantasy quintet written in the 1960-70s), writes that Le Guin’s fantasy narrative and architecture relies on implicit interiors of human ‘morality, identity and power’, and echoed her own sentiment that ‘in serious fantasy, the real battle is moral or internal … To do good, heroes must know or learn that the “axis of evil” is within them.’ I wish I had been given Earthsea to read when I was a child.
As I grew older, like Le Guin, I lost interest in fantasy and science fiction. Not because I ‘grew’ out of them, but because I didn’t see any part of myself in those stories at all: ‘all stories seemed to be about hardware and soldiers: White men go forth and conquer the universe,’ Le Guin wrote. Yet where else could you expect to see yourself if not in a made-up reality—not just for women, but for those who are non-binary, queer, black, or otherwise? Science fiction in the 1960s, and again in the 2000s, largely dismissed issues of identity as ‘fantasy’. ‘Freedom is not always an easy thing for women to find’, Le Guin said, speaking at AussieCon, the Worldcon science fiction convention held in Melbourne in 1975. Her ferocity was evident not only in her criticism of the structures in place; she urged women to lift and encourage each other: ‘I am sick of the silence of women’. At the Bryn Mawr College commencement speech in 1986 (a speech later published in her essay collection Dancing At The Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places), she said:
We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.
That’s what I want—to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you—I want to hear you. I want to listen to you talking to each other and to us all: whether you’re writing an article or a poem or a letter or teaching a class or talking with friends or reading a novel or making a speech or proposing a law or giving a judgment or singing the baby to sleep or discussing the fate of nations, I want to hear you. Speak with a woman’s tongue.
Le Guin demonstrated, fiercely and without compromise, how women can show ambition, critiquing those who regularly denigrated science fiction as a less serious genre. She wrote feminist and science fiction books—often one and the same—finding success in an uncharted terrain for a female writer in the 1960s and 70s. In an essay titled ‘A Rant About “Technology”‘ (listed on her website, which I would encourage everyone to visit), she criticised the distinction between hard science fiction and soft science fiction, the notion that materially, ‘hard’ science fiction had technology, and ‘soft’ science fiction, like hers, had none and dealt with ‘emotions and squashy stuff’. Instead, she argues that ‘technology is the active human interface with the material world’. The role of gender here is significant, and the debate is still ongoing. The perceived glorification of those who write ‘hard’ science fiction is based on the idea that social aspects of narrative are easier to accommodate, easier to write, and implies that women are less skilled science fiction writers. Le Guin persevered, refusing to disappear into the wallpaper.
With her 1974 novel, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, she reified the boundary between utopias and dystopias, considering utopia in the context of anarchism, and opening the discussion about how different modes of social organiation can be utopian. The Dispossessed is critically one of the best novels I have ever read, mainly because it personifies the exhaustion of waging war against ideals and disregarding the real-life effects their ideas have on people.
Time and time again, Le Guin surpassed my expectations of what a writer and a person can be. She was not only good, but consistently good. Her emphasis on storytelling and the act of listening evidences an ability to see perspectives beyond her own, a lack of self-imposition on other cultures and other people’s stories. I always found an implied advocacy for activism in her words: ‘Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in—become part of the action.’ On a larger societal scale, she raised objections about Google’s digitisation project, citing copyright and workers’ rights, resigning from the Authors Guild when they endorsed the project. In a blog post titled “Up the Amazon with the BS Machine or Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon,” she justified her stance against Amazon and its commodification of books.
Often older women, once revered in their hey-day, heralded as feminist thinkers, end up disappointing younger generations because they refuse to listen. They become set in their views, believing that any contradiction or admission of a change of mind may indicate ‘feminine’ weakness. Their inability to be fallible, to present themselves as vulnerable, to embody human qualities, is compromising their ability to remain relevant and inspiring for new generations. Contrary to many at her age, Ursula K. Le Guin was often self-reflecting and upheld retrospection as way to encourage us to learn from our mistakes. She fought for women, for the environment, for the literary community and for the world we all occupy.
She simply may have an incredible PR assistant. Yet regardless, whether fantasy or reality, she is, to me, a hero I want to live up to.
On whether she was tired of being ‘honored and lionized’, Le Guin said:
Always remember, you’re talking to a woman. And for a woman, any literary award, honors, notice of any sort has been an uphill climb. And if she insists upon flouting convention and writing SF and fantasy and indescribable stuff, it’s even harder.
I remember that she chose this journey and this life, and how fiercely she fought for it. I remember how much I admire people who choose to do good, despite hardships inherent in the choice. She said of Virginia Woolf: ‘she gave me permission, the way a great writer does.’ Le Guin gave me permission too.
Marta Skrabacz is a writer, critic and producer based in Melbourne. She tweets @grrlmarta.