In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died this week, one of my favorite novelists.

Her parents studied and worked extensively with the last member of the Yahi people, who occupied territory in the Sierra Nevada until they were massacred in the Gold Rush. I have never seen Le Guin say exactly how that influenced her, but a lot of her themes are about interactions between different cultures, and imbalances of power and domination. She was excellent writer, in both character and plot, always taking points of view that are unusual but very recognizably human.

My favorite stories by her are the Hainish Cycle: The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores fluidity of gender; The Dispossessed, which contrasted capitalism and communism; and the novella The Word For World Is Forest, which has environmentalist/anticolonialist themes. But the themes are rarely overt; there is nothing polemical. The storytelling approach is always a kind of “what if there was a place with people like this?” that sucks you in from curiosity. But then as you reflect afterward it’s like “wait, the world is kind of like that, at least parts of it, although I hadn’t thought about it like that before.” The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed each won Hugo and Nebula Awards.

She also clearly planned stories very well: while you’re reading, the stories cruise along, driven by plot and character. But then at the end, while you also have the usual climax and dénouement to process emotionally, there’s also this intellectual process you often have to go through to reconstruct exactly how the whole thing fit together. Sort of like the same feeling you get at the end of movies like Memento or Donnie Darko where you have to reconstruct some of the plot structure and parallel threads yourself at the end. May the world have more novelists like her that make readers study the world and imagine all the different perspectives within it, and all the ways it might be.