Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)

Ursula K. Le Guin holding her tribble at the Tiptree Symposium in 2015. Photo by Jeffrey Smith.

Ursula K. Le Guin died January 22 at the age of 88 reports the New York Times:

[The] immensely popular author who brought literary depth and a tough-minded feminist sensibility to science fiction and fantasy with books like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and the Earthsea series, died on Monday at her home in Portland, Ore. She was 88.

Her son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, confirmed the death. He did not specify a cause but said she had been in poor health for several months.

File 770 hopes to run a full tribute later. Meanwhile, here are some of the initial responses from people in the field, some giving favorite Le Guin quotes.

[Thanks to ULTRAGOTHA, JJ, Lis Carey and Cassy B for the story.]

70 thoughts on “Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)

  1. Ahhh shit. The Dispossessed was one of the first novels that I remember reading and thinking this is a truly great piece of writing. Not just a great sf novel, but a great novel period.

  2. As a child I used to read like a scanner, hoovering up books. Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Le Guin, Heinlein, Norton, Shaw…

    Ursula Le Guin’s books are ones that have stayed with me. I have read them to my own children. She was not just good, she was important.

  3. *SIGH* Requiescat In Pace.

    I’ll be re-reading quite a bit of her work for a while. Another giant gone.

  4. Wizard of Earthsea was my first Fantasy-novel. Before Lord of the Rings. And has always been more important to me. This is so depressing. I want a new year, this one is broken. 🙁

  5. Damn it.

    I loved her nonfiction essays, even more in some ways than her fiction.

    I’m so glad she got that one last Hugo last year.

  6. Before Lord of the Rings, before even The Hobbit…

    I don’t remember exactly when but I do remember where I was. We only lived there a few years so I must have been somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. It was raining and I was sick with some kind of flu-like thing, wrapped in blankets on the sofa and unable to do much more than reach for another tissue. My mother went to the library to get me something to read. She didn’t know what I might like – Mum was never much of a reader of books – but the librarian knew me well enough to put together a small stack and sent them home with her.

    I don’t remember any books from that pile except the one on top: A Wizard of Earthsea. That’s how I became a fantasy reader and fan.

    When I get home from work I think I’ll curl up on the sofa with A Wizard again. I might still need those tissues.

  7. A sad day, and commiserations to the family.
    She was the greatest Guest of Honour we could possibly have had at Aussiecon in 1975 – remembered with awe and affection!

  8. She was a source of inspiration to me during childhood and adulthood and in my written work and voice. The world is suddenly a smaller and poorer place.

  9. Damn it. Damn damn damn.

    I received the L of A 2-volume Hainish Novels and Stories as a birthday present a couple of months back, which gave me an excuse for a Le Guin re-read (in fact a couple of her early novels I hadn’t previously read); I’m currently most of the way through the first volume. What a wonderful writer. Thank you and RIP.

  10. So sad to hear this when I came home from work today. Think I need to re-read her work.

    Rest in peace, and thank you for all the words.

  11. I’m just going to cry for a while. I’ll have more to say, but right now I just can’t.

  12. She was an extraordinary author and by all accounts an extraordinary person. I’m so grateful of everything of hers I got to read, grateful to The Left Hand of Darkness for pulling me into Science fiction in a huge way, grateful that for me there’s still more to read, though, of course, it’ll never feel like enough.

    Thoughts and good energy to the family and to the so very many of us affected by this news.

  13. Her writing was transformative. It changed the way I looked at books. It changed my politics. Both for the better.

    Reading Earthsea was a key moment in my childhood. Reading The Dispossessed was a key moment in my adolescence. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness was a key moment in my adulthood.

    And those are only some of her books and stories that were important to me. The Lathe of Heaven. Very Far Away from Anyplace Else. Intracom. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

    She was a giant.

  14. Any truly honest evaluation of LeGuin should first take notice of and then read closely George Slusser’s 2014 University of Illinois Press book “Gregory Benford” in the Masters of Science Fiction series. That’s all I’m going to say, except that it’s a real eye opener……

  15. Quelle suprise, Eric Leif Davin’s staunch apologist shows up to cast aspersions on Le Guin before her memorial service has even been held.

    You should be ashamed of yourself, KBK. This is neither the appropriate day, nor the appropriate thread, for your comment. 😐

  16. JJ, these types have no grasp of “appropriate;” they think they can advance whatever they think they’re advancing by making people feel bad, when they imagine those people are vulnerable.

    Fortunately, they’re idiots.

  17. I can’t list all the Le Guin works that have influenced me personally; the list of those that haven’t would probably be shorter.

    The Dispossessed, which I first read when I was beginning to think about politics end ethics as an adult, had a major impact; Four Ways to Forgiveness, which I encountered at another moral inflection point, likewise. The Earthsea series was a master class in world-building; Malafrena a lesson in reconstructing the past.

    But if I were asked to name the Le Guin works that left the greatest impression, the first ones I would list would be short stories, and not the one you probably thought of as you were reading this sentence. “The Masters” and “The Stars Below” for their depiction of curiosity and love of learning confronting institutional constraints (there’s something of “The Masters” in my first published story, “First Do No Harm”). “Things” for human yearning when all patterns and verities have collapsed. “Diary of the Rose” for the triumph of dreams over totalitarian conditioning. “Semley’s Necklace” – the Rocannon’s World story would have been complete if it had never been more than that. The Orsinian stories – “Two Delays on the Northern Line,” but all the others as well. “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” as an object lesson in sheer playful, mind-expanding thought experiment.

    I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I’d never encountered Le Guin. I wouldn’t be the person I am either.

  18. On one hand, this is a terrible loss as any death of a gifted artist is. On the other hand, she did and achieved more than most and nobody can say that Ursula K. Le Guin didn’t leave a life well lived behind.

  19. Dammit. She was one of the writers who showed me the world was immeasurably larger than I had imagined before I read that first book. It might have been Lathe of Heaven, but it might equally have been any of a half dozen. Her writing was alive with possibilities.

  20. On The New York Times obituary, I commented:

    “I am devastated. Knew her for so long, met her at her home in 1975, published several pieces of fiction and poetry by her, a chapbook (before anyone knew her to any great degree), the essay, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves,’ in my science fiction fanzine Algol.

    “One of the great writers who bridged the divide between science fiction and fantasy and that often unattainable bridge to mainstream literature, has passed. I’m really stunned.”
    Mike, scanned in and e-mailed you a photo I took of her at a mid-90s Readercon.

    The very weird thing for me is that when I met her, with Jon Singer, at her home in Portland, she’d just had a root canal. And yesterday, the day she died, I was having oral surgery for a decayed tooth…

  21. I found out from another author’s newsletter earlier this evening and I’m very sorry and sad to hear she’s passed away. 🙁 I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Earthsea, but I also enjoyed her SF, too, and hearing her blunt, speak-truth-to-power speeches like the one when she got the National Book Award. She was one of the all-time greats!

  22. In the 1970s I just thought flat-out that Ursula was the best sf writer we had. And I wasn’t alone.

    I loved the chances I had to serve as her editor, because she supplied unique instructions. I can’t find the letters at the moment, so these are just quasi-quotes. “Don’t change my artefact to artifact, because I think artefact means [one thing] and artifact [another]. But even if they don’t, I’m using artefact here as if they do.” And “Never edit me with the Chicago Manual of Style on your desk.”

    My favorite memory of Ursula is a selfish one, the time I reduced her to helpless laughter with stories about Mortuary Science education, and the time a couple kids playing in the landfill found a barrel full of human hands with our school’s name and address on it to help the police track it back. When the top of the barrel came off and the hands started spilling out, when many people get horrified looks on their faces, Ursula just lost it. I felt great at this accomplishment.

    The last time I talked to her, soon after Trump’s election, I started drawing comparisons between America and Omelas, and she just stopped me. “You can’t think like that,” she said. “We have to concentrate on whatever positives we can find, things that aren’t affected by this.”

  23. I read so much science fiction as a teenager in the ’70s and ’80s. Vast piles of paperbacks. I remember maybe 10% of them, I’ve got a lousy memory. I can only recall a couple of works from back then with so much emotional resonance that I can say that they changed the way I think and talk and write; Omelas is one and Lathe of Heaven is another. Le Guin was one of a kind.

  24. Another of my personal pantheon gone…
    I think I loved her short stories best – they showed off her infinite variety of tone, in comedy and tragedy, her capacity to say so much with comparatively little…

  25. I read Tombs of Atuan first. I was in the second year of junior school (aged 8/9) and it must have been in the library. I remember the dark and the labyrinth, the dreadful fate of Tenar, the fear and and how enclosed and trapped she was. I remember the story of the sad couple on the spit of sand. At least I think I do, things are bigger in your memory of childhood, stories take on the shape of your imagination.

    Her writing was not kind but it was beautiful and it stayed with me and shaped how stories are supposed to be.

    I found the rest of Earthsea much later and admired it immensely. I think I was surprised to find Tombs again, to find something so different from the isolated story of my childhood.

    Years later I found Left Hand of Darkness, Hain and her essays and I have been working my way through slowly ever since. Her writing is always sharp enough to cut, wise and wide-reaching, unashamedly intelligent and challenging. She’s a writer I have always had to take time to consider and absorb. She still shapes my ideas of what stories should be.

    One of the greats. Goodbye Ursula Le Guin. RIP.

  26. I never got to meet her, and now I never will. It’s a small thing compared to the great reach of her many works throughout her long life, but it’s the thing that’s hurting the most right now.

    At the same time, I feel like I’ve been bracing for this announcement for years, ever since I read her essay, or article, or blog post, in which she said that she would most likely never write another novel, as those took a sustained energy that she no longer had at her age. Since reading those words, every day without this announcement in it has felt like a gift.

    We are the poorer for her loss, but much, much richer for having had her in our world. May we all do as much with our lives as she did with hers.

  27. I’m glad she was able to have a long life where she got to write books, and I hope that she found meaning in it. May she rest in peace.

  28. Rest in Peace. Thank you for all the wonderful stories.

    She was one of the greatest authors, not only in science fiction and fantasy but in all literature. So many great books and wonderful stories that shaped my reading life from childhood to adulthood.
    I think I need to look through my bookshelves and reread a few books, again…

  29. I came to Le Guin late, in my mid20s, well after she published The Left Hand of Darkness. Somebody gave me a copy of Earthsea when I was in Athens, I started it at 10 pm at the airport and finished my first read-through in London the next day. The I went back and read it again, slowly.
    I used to call her the greatest living American writer. Now she’s just the greatest.

  30. Ursula Le Guin’s has left is so many fine memories and wsdom, all the more needed these days. I have reread some of her seminal works in the past year or two, including ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, ‘The Word for World is Forset’ and ‘The Dispossessed’. It is no surprise that they maintain their power and relevance today more than 40 years on. I have a special regard for ‘Lavinia’, in which the writer chooses to tell the tale of a woman robbed of words in Virgil’s ‘Aenead’, and more recently enjoyed the 3 volumes of ‘Annals of the Western Shore’.

    On the slopes of Mt TBR ‘Very Far Away from Anywhere Else’ and ‘A Fisherman of the Inland Sea’ await. This seems like a time for such tomes to be prioritised.

    Vale Ursula Le Guin.

  31. I’m going to quote this excerpt wholesale from one of JJ’s comment from JJ’s link to the Baen antho discussion from 2016, because it’s brilliant:

    Ursula K. Le Guin once recounted in an essay for The New Yorker an anecdote about submitting a short story to Playboy in the late sixties. Her agent, Virginia Kidd, had sent the story, “Nine Lives,” a work of science fiction in which most of the characters were men, to the magazine’s fiction editor. “When it was accepted,” Le Guin wrote of her agent, “she revealed the horrid truth.” The horrid truth, of course, was that the two initials at the front of her pen name, U. K. Le Guin, stood for Ursula Kroeber. The story’s author was a woman.

    Playboy’s editors responded that they would still like to publish the story, but asked if they could print only Le Guin’s initials, lest their readers be frightened by a female byline. “Unwilling to terrify these vulnerable people,” Le Guin wrote, “I told Virginia to tell them sure, that’s fine.” After a couple of weeks, Playboy asked for an author bio. “At once, I saw the whole panorama of U.K.’s life,” Le Guin remembered, “as a gaucho in Patagonia, a stevedore in Marseilles, a safari leader in Kenya, a light-heavyweight prizefighter in Chicago, and the abbot of a Coptic monastery in Algeria.” Eventually, Le Guin did submit an author bio. It read: “It is commonly suspected that the writings of U. K. Le Guin are not actually written by U. K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.” Playboy printed it.

    Ursula K. Le Guin on Writing in the 21st Century

    Link to the article: https://www.vogue.com/article/ursula-le-guin-steering-the-craft

    (Jayn’s takedown of Davin in that comment thread is masterful, by the way.)

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