Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way.
(from “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin)
On Wednesday morning I woke up to discover that one of my favourite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, a woman who has influenced not just my writing but how I think, had died. She had passed away on the Monday, and the news had filtered through over the following 24 hours.
Her death was not unexpected, I suppose, as she had reached a great age, but still it seemed shocking, as it always is when a great artist or a great writer – indeed, a great person – leaves us, a bafflement that so important and beloved a figure could be gone.
She was 88, and had had a long and fulfilling life and career, for which we should be grateful, and she could be proud of her lasting influence on literature, especially science fiction and fantasy. And she was a robust defender of her chosen genre(s) – here she is giving the acceptance speech when she won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014:
I first discovered her work about fifteen years ago, when I bought an omnibus edition of her first four Earthsea novels from my local bookshop in North London. I knew next to nothing about her, except that I was intrigued by her name – which I thought was a memorable one, especially for a fantasy writer – and by the little I had heard about her writing. I opened the book, and started to read:
“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards…”
Here was an imaginative landscape both familiar – wizards, dragons, strange lands and a simple but well-drawn map tucked between the title page and the first chapter to tell you where you were – and yet strange, as Le Guin took some of the tropes of epic fantasy that had been invented or reinvented by writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and proceeded to shape them to her own ends. Her interest in Taoism, in the balance of light and dark, and in cultures different to her own (her parents were anthropologists) led her to explore the ultimate questions of what makes us human, and what we are capable of being, by placing her characters in fantastic or extraordinary situations and then showing how they – and, by implication, we – might react, might grow and change.
In both the Earthsea books and stories, and in her Hainish Cycle of science fiction (Hain being the fictional planet where in Le Guin’s universe humanoid civilization first develops before spreading out across the galaxy), her tone is thoughtful, compassionate, non-judgemental, and she does the reader the great courtesy of treating them as an equal, even (perhaps especially) in her work for children. There are no literary pyrotechnics, no “look what I can do” showing off, and she is never pretentious or condescending. All this might sound overly worthy, but as well as being beautifully written her stories are also exciting and gripping to read, her invented worlds so well crafted that one can become completely absorbed in them.
She can be angry, too, and her polemical novel “The Word for World Is Forest” (which I have discussed in an earlier post) seethes with barely suppressed rage against the Vietnam War (it was written in 1968), and some of her short fiction, notably “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, upend the reader’s expectations and leave us with more questions than answers, which is as it should be. Though clearly she believed that there were better and fairer ways of organising society than those currently on offer, she was too alive to the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of human nature to assert unambiguous fidelity to a particular political creed. Her novel “The Dispossessed” is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”, and neither Anarres nor Urras, the two contrasting worlds of the story, are presented as perfect or necessarily worthy of emulation.
The more enlightened societies of her stories are often small, village-like, living in harmony with nature rather than against it, effectively autonomous from central authority, gently anarchist, valuing technology only in terms of its practical utility and not as an end in itself. They are places you believe she has visited, which of course she has, in her mind, with a keen anthropologist’s determination to study and record, and report back. To build a better world you first have to imagine it, and what an imagination Ursula Le Guin had, an imagination that could change minds, and will continue to do so, long after she is gone. She has died, but she leaves us a wealth of fiction and non-fiction (her best essays, like her stories, are laced with a dry wit and the sharp observations of this most pragmatic of enlightened thinkers) to read and re-read, and to cherish and pass on. It’s somewhat of a cliché, I know, to describe someone as casting “a long shadow”, but for a great lover of the natural world like Ursula Le Guin I think it is entirely apposite to say that many people will find hope and refreshment in that cool shade, and that her words will continue to nourish those of us who love them, and those yet to discover them, as long as they are read.
Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.