Ursula K. LeGuin passed away about a month ago. As one of the most famous and groundbreaking authors in recent memory, her passing was particularly felt, especially here in Portland, Oregon—the place where she called home since 1958. While she was primarily known as a science fiction writer, her work went a deeper, providing a feminist and literary bent to her work. In true Portland fashion, she wasn’t bound by the rules.
In addition to her work in science fiction and fantasy, LeGuinalso wrote children’s books, short stories, poetry, and essays. Her writing often portrayed futuristic or made-up alternative worlds in politics, the natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality, and ethnography. In 2016, The New York Times described her as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer” although she said that she would eschewed that label, preferring to simply be known as an “American Novelist.”
She was a huge influence on a number of non-genre writers including David Mitchell and Salman Rushdie, but was also listed as a major influence on science fiction and fantasy writers including Iain Banks and Neil Gaiman. Her work won many awards including the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. In 2014, she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2003, she was bestowed the title of Grandmaster of Science Fiction, one of a few female writers to take hold that honor.
Le Guin exploited the creative flexibility of the science fiction and fantasy genres to commence thorough investigations of dimensions of both psychological and social identities and of broader social and cultural constructions. Anarchy, Taoism and environmental mindfulness were also key themes in her work. Because her work was often seen as literary as opposed to strictly genre based, many critics referred to her work as “soft science fiction.”LeGuin, however, demurred to this classification of her writing, arguing the term was divisive and implied a narrow view of what constituted valid science fiction.
My first experience—as it probably was with many of us—was with her was with her short story, “The ones that walk away from Omelas.” This piece of scathing political commentary described a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas whose prosperity depends on the misery of a single child. By the way, if you spell Omelas backwards, you get Salem O, which is where LeGuin was living at the time of writing the piece.
In true Portland fashion, LeGuin used her God given talents and her creativity to help enact social change and make the lives of her fellow citizens better. While I’m not a fan of the genres of science fiction nor of fantasy, I always made exceptions for LeGuin, who wrote with depth and compassion—and not to mention a tremendous degree of skill. She will be missed and Portland (and the literary world at large) is poorer for her loss. She also represented all that Portland, Oregon is and, perhaps, would it could some day be.