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Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was an American novelist. She worked mainly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. She also authored children's books, short stories, poetry, and essays. Her writing was first published in the 1960s and often depicted futuristic or imaginary 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 prefer to be known as an "American novelist".
She won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award, each more than once. In 2003, she was made a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, one of a few women writers to take the top honor in the genre.
Le Guin exploited the creative flexibility of the science fiction and fantasy genres to undertake thorough explorations of dimensions of both social and psychological identity and of broader cultural and social structures. In doing so, she drew on sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Underlying ideas of anarchism and environmentalism also make repeated appearances throughout Le Guin’s work.
“Anything at all can be said to happen [in the future] without fear of contradiction from a native. The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method”
Le Guin became interested in literature quite early. At age 11, she submitted her first story to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It was rejected. She continued writing but did not attempt to publish for ten years. From 1951 to 1961 she wrote five novels, which publishers rejected, because they seemed inaccessible. She also wrote poetry during this time, including Wild Angels (1975).
Her earliest writings, some of which she adapted in Orsinian Tales and Malafrena, were non-fantastic stories set in the imaginary country of Orsinia. Searching for a way to express her interests, she returned to her early interest in science fiction; in the early 1960s her work began to be published regularly.
In 1964 the short story "The Word of Unbinding" was published. This was the first of the Earthsea fantasy series, which includes six books and eight short stories. The three linked young adult novels beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972), sometimes referred to as The Earthsea Trilogy, in later years would be joined by the books Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind.
Le Guin received wide recognition for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970. Her subsequent novel The Dispossessed made her the first person to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel twice for the same two books.
In later years, Le Guin worked in film and audio. She contributed to The Lathe of Heaven, a 1979 PBS film based on her novel of the same name. In 1985 she collaborated with avant-garde composer David Bedford on the libretto of Rigel 9, a space opera.
In 1984, Le Guin was part of a group along with Ken Kesey, Brian Booth, and William Stafford that founded the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts, which is now known as Literary Arts in Portland.
In December 2009, Le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild in protest over its endorsement of Google Books, Google's book digitization project. "You decided to deal with the devil", she wrote in her resignation letter. "There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle."
Being so thoroughly informed by social science perspectives on identity and society, Le Guin treats race and gender quite deliberately. The majority of her main characters are people of color, a choice made to reflect the non-white majority of humans, and one to which she attributes the frequent lack of character illustrations on her book covers. Her writing often makes use of alien (i.e., human but non-Terran) cultures to examine structural characteristics of human culture and society and their impact on the individual.
This prominent theme of cultural interaction is most likely rooted in the fact that Le Guin grew up in a household of anthropologists where she was surrounded by the remarkable case of Ishi – a Native American acclaimed in his time as the "last wild Indian" – and his interaction with the white man's world. Le Guin's father was director of the University of California Museum of Anthropology, where Ishi was studied and worked as a research assistant. Her mother wrote the bestseller Ishi in Two Worlds. Similar elements are echoed through many of Le Guin's stories – from Planet of Exile and City of Illusions to The Word for World Is Forest and The Dispossessed.
Le Guin's writing notably employs the ordinary actions and transactions of everyday life, clarifying how these daily activities embed individuals in a context of relation to the physical world and to one another. For example, the engagement of the main characters with the everyday business of looking after animals, tending gardens and doing domestic chores is central to the novel Tehanu. Themes of Jungian psychology also are prominent in her writing.
Le Guin's feelings towards anarchism were closely tied to her Taoist beliefs and both ideas appear in her work. "Taoism and Anarchism fit together in some very interesting ways and I've been a Taoist ever since I learned what it was." She participated in numerous peace marches and although she did not call herself an anarchist, since she did not live the lifestyle, she did feel that "Democracy is good but it isn't the only way to achieve justice and a fair share." Le Guin said: "The Dispossessed is an Anarchist utopian novel. Its ideas come from the Pacifist Anarchist tradition – Kropotkin etc. So did some of the ideas of the so-called counterculture of the sixties and seventies." She also said that anarchism "is a necessary ideal at the very least. It is an ideal without which we couldn't go on. If you are asking me is anarchism at this point a practical movement, well, then you get in the question of where you try to do it and who's living on your boundary?"
Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, at her home in Portland, Oregon; her son stated that she had been in poor health for several months. Her New York Times obituary called her "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".
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