When I was very young and on the cusp of becoming a bookworm, I was bemused by those rah-rah blurbs on some books espousing the virtues of the writer as a “warm and compassionate soul”.
How could one determine that from a person’s writing? Words are merely words, after all. And didn’t the art of creative writing also mean putting oneself in a different mindset? In a sense, one assumes a role different from the writer’s own self?
Then I read my first Ursula K. Le Guin book, and I realised that yes, there are some writers so profound that their warmth and compassion shine through their words and sear themselves on the reader’s heart and mind.
The multiple award-winning author died on Monday at her home in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 88. Her works spanned classics of science fiction and fantasy, as well as poetry and critical essays treating not just literature, but also social issues.
Just for her novels, she won five Locus awards, four Nebulas, two Hugos, and one World Fantasy Award. She also won many other awards for shorter works of both fiction and non-fiction. Indeed, her 19 Locus awards is a record for the most ever won by a single writer.
The tributes are pouring in, from not just readers but other writers too, for whom she blazed a trail.
“This is an evening to mourn a giant,” tweeted fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay, while Neil Gaiman, on hearing the news, tweeted: “Her words are always with us. Some of them are written on my soul.”
How does one even begin to pay her the proper tribute? There are so many aspects to her.
Let’s start with her writing. Le Guin was deft with the written word, employing a certain lyrical simplicity that belied the complexity of the themes she explored. She could tickle minds and move hearts with her words, a true writer’s writer.
That skill would come in handy with her science fiction (SF), which in their totality was a victory for feminism.
She broke through at a time when the genre was dominated by Caucasian males, so much so that other female writers had to use gender-neutral names like Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, or even male pseudonyms, which is what Alice Bradley Sheldon did, calling herself James Tiptree Jr.
Le Guin was also part of a group of writers – including Samuel R. Delany, a mixed-race bisexual – who injected a literary dimension to a genre badly in need of it.
In 1987, she was invited to write a blurb for an SF anthology. When she realised that all the stories were by men, she responded with a letter that described her disdain for the “boys’ club” atmosphere of the SF world then, with the stinging “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here”.
Le Guin also proved that “literary SF” can be both allegorical and solid science fiction too.
The Dispossessed, published in 1974, was not just a utopian novel that explored themes ranging from capitalism and communism to social activism and revolutions, but also explored scientific ideas such as relativity in a way that would not have been out of place in hardcore SF from writers like Arthur C. Clarke.
It also featured the development of the fictional device the “ansible” – which allows instantaneous communications across lightyears – a term that has found use in today’s technology world.
No wonder The Dispossessed won the Locus, Nebula, and Hugo awards for best SF novel of the year.
The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969), a seminal work exploring sexuality and gender roles, was not just a tale of an “ambisexual” race of aliens – they have no fixed sex – but had some biological bite to it too.
It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Yet she is most beloved for her fantasy, and foremost amongst her works in the genre is the Earthsea series.
The first three books – for many years, it remained “The Earthsea trilogy” – were marketed as children’s books, but they certainly would have looked out of place sitting next to JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and CS Lewis’ Narnia series.
A Wizard Of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs Of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972, and which also won the National Book Award) were not only coming-of-age stories. They explored themes ranging from a kind of Taoist balance and the power of words, to even death. Not quite Harry Potter.
The award-winning writer and feminist Margaret Atwood described A Wizard of Earthsea one of the “wellsprings” of fantasy literature.
In 1990, Le Guin returned to the world of Earthsea with Tehanu: The Last Book Of Earthsea, which won Nebula Award and Locus Fantasy Award, where she attempted to redress what she felt were shortcomings in the original series: The male-centric view of the world.
She would follow this up years later with Tales from Earthsea (a collection of short stories) and The Other Wind, both published in 2001, with the latter winning the World Fantasy Award.
Not only were these books stirring and imaginative, they were outliers – the first four books featured a dark-skinned protagonist, the wizard Ged, at a time when all fantasy heroes were white males.
Indeed, Le Guin was making a stand here for minority races much as she had been doing for women, but it would be many years later when she grew pissed off enough to say why.
That was in 2004 when the then Sci Fi Channel (now SyFy), which had acquired the rights to the Earthsea books, cast a blonde white guy as Ged in its mini-series.
Le Guin wrote one of the most profound rants on her blog, later reprinted on the online magazine Slate, titled A Whitewashed Earthsea. It is essential reading even today:
“Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow,” she wrote.
This was especially so for her Earthsea books, which was a deliberate attempt to take the “whiteness” away from the fantasy genre.
“My colour scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start,” she wrote.
“I was a little wily about my colour scheme. I figured some white kids … might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin colour in by degrees – hoping that the reader would get ‘into Ged’s skin’ and only then discover it wasn’t a white one,” she added.
Le Guin stood up for the rest of us – all women, and all people of colour. From the start of her writing career, right up to the end of life.
In the last few years, the world has seen the rise of the alt-right. “Male rights” activists from the Gamergate and Sad Puppy movements have tried to bar minorities – anybody who is not a Caucasian male – from what they see as their domain, whether it is videogames or genre fiction.
An alleged sexual harasser sits in the Oval Office and believes that there are some “fine people” fighting for white supremacy, while the White House is full of “locker room talk”.
We need voices like Le Guin more than ever. Hers is a warm and compassionate soul, but with bite.