Until recently, I had not really known much of Ursula Le Guin, although now am immersed in her life’s story. Without Ursula K. Le Guin, science fiction and fantasy would not be where it is today. This year, her massively influential novel The Left Hand of Darkness turns 50 years old, and to mark the occasion, PBS premiered an award-winning documentary on the beloved author’s life and career as part of their American Masters series. Her awards were many.
American Masters – Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin begins with Le Guin’s early struggle to get published in the overwhelmingly male and realism-dominated climate of the early 1960s. Her first major breakthrough came with the young adult novel “A Wizard of Earthsea,” set in a magical archipelago inhabited by wizards and dragons. Along with groundbreaking novels like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed,” “Earthsea” crowned Le Guin as the queen of science fiction by the end of the decade. But as a woman and a genre writer, she still faced marginalization that hobbled her career until the last decade of her life, when she won the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award and became the second living author to have their work anthologized by the Library of Congress.
This is where I pick up her story of empowerment: At the heart of the film is Le Guin’s intimate journey of self-discovery as she comes into her own as a major feminist author. “What I was doing was being a woman pretending to think like a man,” she says, reflecting on why her early novels put men at the center of the action. But as second-wave feminism crashed into the science fiction world in the 1970’s, Le Guin recognized her own internalized notions about heroism and power. Initially defensive, she found truth in the criticisms of her work. When revisiting the realm of “Earthsea,” she turned her gaze to its women, instead of powerful male wizards. The result was a transformation that echoed throughout the rest of her oeuvre. By embracing her own identity and learning to write as a woman, she eventually rose to the height of her literary power. This was the purpose!
No single work did more to upend the Science-Fiction genre’s conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). In this novel, her fourth, Le Guin imagined a world whose human inhabitants have no fixed gender: their sexual roles are determined by context and express themselves only once every month. The form of the book is a mosaic of primary sources, an interstellar ethnographer’s notebook, ranging from matter-of-fact journal entries to fragments of alien myth.
Major Science Fiction writers today credit her influence, including George R.R. Martin, creator of Game of Thrones. She has perhaps become best known for Earthsea, as well as the anarchist utopian allegory The Dispossessed, but she got prickly if referred to only as a Sci-Fi writer. She was a novelist and a poet. Where the early writers dismissed everything except physics, astronomy, chemistry, she noted that they thought of biology, sociology and anthropology as “not science,” the soft stuff, and not interested in what humans really do. This might be why her fiction has been more readily admired in so-called literary circles—that it’s more engaged with human complexity and psychology.
Until just recently, there was great prejudice against being labeled a science fiction writer. She was always a writer, from the age of five or six starting with poetry. The early fiction she read was fantasy tales in “pulp magazines, because realism seemed a very sophisticated form of literature. That could be part of what led her to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led her to write fiction. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.