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Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)

Science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, “a superbly imaginative creator and major stylist” who “has raised fantasy into high literature for our time,” according to literary critic Harold Bloom, has died, reports Gerald Jonas of the New York Times. Millions of Le Guin’s books have been sold worldwide and translated into more than forty languages. She authored more than twenty novels and one hundred short stories, in addition to thirteen children’s books, twelve books of poems, seven essay collections, five volumes of translated works, and a guide for writers. She was eighty-eight years old when she died.

Le Guin’s mark on the genre, one that’s prone to male chauvinism and macho self-glorification, was, among other things, proudly feminist. For instance, her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet called Gethen, whose inhabitants are neither male nor female, but take on the attributes of either sex during reproduction. The book has remained in print for nearly fifty years. She saw being a writer as a calling that carried with it a great deal of responsibility. In a 2005 interview with The Guardian, she said, “If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly. Little kids can’t do it; babies are morally monsters—completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy.”

The author graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951 and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, where she specialized in romance literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She had already written five unpublished novels by the early 1960s. She published her first novel, Rocannon’s World, in 1966. The first in her series of “Earthsea” books, A Wizard of Earthsea, about a realm where magic is treated like science, was published in 1968. The “Earthsea” series was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1937–49) and her research into Taoist texts. “Earthsea” was also adapted for a television miniseries by the Sci-Fi Channel in 2004.

Le Guin was the recipient of many awards throughout her lifetime, including several Hugo and Nebula awards (given for distinction in science fiction and fantasy writing); the 2002 PEN/Malamud Award for “excellence in a body of short fiction”; the Margaret Edwards Award for children’s literature from the American Library Association in 2004; and the Emperor Has No Clothes Award, given by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2009. In 2014, Le Guin received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards, which she accepted on behalf of other science fiction and fantasy writers, who’d been, as she said, “excluded from literature for so long.”