Written by Santina Cirino
I was a teenager the first time I picked up an Ursula K Le Guin novel.
I wasn’t out at the time, I didn’t even realize I was queer at the time, and I picked this book up because I’m shallow and I love good cover art. The premise itself was interesting: a historian-slash-anthropologist named Sutty leaves Earth to serve as an observer on another world on behalf of an interplanetary alliance called the Ekumen. When most science fiction is the domain of physics, artificial intelligence, interplanetary warfare, and complex machinations and feuds between polities, the idea that sci-fi can also be a sociological treatise on how cultures develop independently of and influence one another was a revelation. Reading the world “homophobia” on the page of a book for the first time was a revelation. A queer science fiction story about a woman of color was a revelation.
But that was the great current surging beneath Le Guin’s work: the reinvention of speculative fiction in a way that focuses on how humanity understands itself, rather than simply how people are affected by the fantastical, futuristic, or alien.
Ursula Kroeber was born in 1929 to a UC Berkeley anthropologist and a writer, and grew up exposed to her parents’ eclectic circle of friends. She began writing from a young age, and submitted her first story for publication before she was out of middle school. She was interested in the fantastic and the fictional, in biology, poetry, literature, and history. In college, she pursued degrees in Renaissance literature, obtaining a B.A. and an M.A. before stopping midway through her doctoral studies. She married historian Charles Le Guin in 1953, and the couple had three children.
During the 50’s, Le Guin submitted several novels for publication, but they were rejected because publishers considered them too abstract for their audiences. She began to see success in the early 60’s, with her short stories reaching publication in literary magazines. It was during this period that Le Guin began writing her two most famous recurring series: the racially diverse fantasy epic A Wizard of Earthsea and the heavily anthropological science fiction collection The Hainish Cycle. By the time she passed away on January 22 at 88 years of age, she had published over thirty novels, several short stories, poetry collections, and multiple volumes of non-fiction.
Coming from a family and social community of anthropologists and social scientists, Le Guin’s work is imbued with their influence. She made it a point to focus on non-white protagonists and communities as a deliberate reflection of the world’s actual racial makeup; she explored gender roles and sexuality in a number of contexts. The Left Hand of Darkness, the fourth entry in The Hainish Cycle and the one to first win her both the Hugo and Nebula awards, is a classic cornerstone of queer literature: it tells the story of an observer sent from our world to the planet Gethen, whose indigenous people have no gender roles and no inherent biological sex characteristics, and thus no concept of gender or sexuality as we know them.
Le Guin spent her career crafting a form of science fiction that stood apart from its brethren in the lens it viewed the genre’s trappings through, a fantasy style that was uniquely inclusive of different skin colors. She was fiercely political, staunchly feminist, vehemently anti-capitalist. She may not have been a part of our community, but the impact she had on members of our community through her stories is immeasurable. She introduced some of us to our sexuality, and others to our gender; she taught us what it meant to struggle with the impact your culture has on how you view others, nurtured in us a deep streak of anarchism and distrust of authority, and reminded us to love our planet and to care for it as it takes care of us.
With some authors, you have to read several of their books to know how much you cherish them. And there are some authors whom you only need to read once, and to read more is a treasure. Ursula K Le Guin was one of the latter.
“𝘠𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘣𝘶𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘰𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘠𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘮𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘰𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘠𝘰𝘶 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘣𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘰𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘐𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘪𝘵, 𝘰𝘳 𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦.”