Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

I may be a mild heretic in that I have only ever liked a small amount of Le Guin's work - her later work in particular became too literary for me (in related note, the only Atwood I've ever been able to get through at all is The Handmaid's Tale).

But Le Guin's contributions to speculative fiction absolutely cannot be denied.

She is notable for three things:

All of her main characters were PoC. Every single one. This decision is often missed (when Earthsea was adapted for screen, it was thoroughly white washed and a lot of people don't realize Gentry Ai isn't white), especially as her publishers refused to put the characters on the cover.

She wrote science fiction that took anthropology and social development seriously. This was fairly unusual at the time and is often neglected today (C.J. Cherryh is a notable exception, although she does not engage with gender in the way Le Guin did in The Left Hand of Darkness).

Which - yes, she engaged with gender in ways that few authors have (notable exception here would be Ann Leckie's work in the Imperial Radch trilogy, which I really need to read in full). If any of her books influenced me it would be The Left Hand of Darkness.

Perhaps because of their literary nature or, sadly just as likely, those non-white protagonists, Le Guin has seldom been adapted (and indeed, I've had more than one science fiction fan respond to the name with "Who"). The Lathe of Heaven was adapted twice, and Le Guin considered the 1979 adaptation the only good one. She was disappointed in the animated Earthsea, and in 2004 the Sci Fi channel took the same books...and thoroughly whitewashed them, leaving Le Guin out of the process altogether and generally pissing her off. There have been a few others, including a disappointing attempt to turn The Left Hand of Darkness into a stage play.

This didn't work because The Left Hand of Darkness needs more length than that - it's been picked up as a mini-series, but the state of that project might be in the air.

Le Guin's contributions were not just recognized by science fiction (although she was a Grand Master and received the lifetime award from the World Fantasy Convention). She also received lifetime awards from the American Library Association, the Library of Congress, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (Le Guin was a Taoist and an anarchist), the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Society for Utopian Studies. Which for a science fiction writer - perhaps Le Guin's biggest contribution is that she made literary science fiction respectable and really established it as a sub genre. And although literary science fiction is not my personal favorite, it deserves and needs to exist.

I'm going to pass you over to some larger names than I for more thoughts on Le Guin and her legacy.

But although she had a long life and a full career, her passing is a loss to all of us. I'm trying to work out whether I can sneak some tribute to her in to something at Farpoint, which is now only a couple of weeks away.