A greater, unlearned skill — remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

As you’ve no doubt heard, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away this week, not unexpectedly, but it still came as a blow after a year in which we lost so many great artists and minds. Many others have written better and more profoundly about her life than I could — John Scalzi, Julie Phillips, and basically the entire SF/F community — but I still feel compelled to say something because it is impossible to overstate how important her work was to me.

I came to Le Guin’s work through The Wizard of Earthsea, her groundbreaking fantasy novel, not because I sought it out, but because I was a ravenous reader in a pre-internet world and it was what was on the shelves of the library. As someone raised on Tolkien and Heinlein and Asimov (again, mostly because that’s what was there), Earthsea was a revelation.

I wouldn’t be able to articulate it until much later, but Earthsea offered me an entirely different conception of fantasy, of heroism, and of character, than I was used to. It was a story where wisdom, thoughtfulness, humility, and patience were rewarded and celebrated over strength and violence and bravery, a world where a sensitive young man could see someone who resembled him more than Aragorn or Conan or any traditional fantasy protagonist. Sparrowhawk was a hero — imperfect, good-hearted, humble (eventually) — that I could understand on a deeply personal level, someone I saw myself in, for perhaps the first time.

Later, when I was older and a little wiser, The Dispossessed showed me a world that could be different and deftly revealed the flaws in our own, and perhaps more than anything else, shaped my current political leanings.  “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”, while a little heavy handed, powerfully affected me by throwing into sharp relief the cruel decisions that we make every day, the horrors that we allow, that we uncritically accept as necessary. The Left Hand of Darkness shattered and then reshaped my ideas about gender and relationships, preparing me to be the friend and ally that I’ve needed to be in recent years.

Other books, individually, have meant more to me, and if I were going to pick a personal library to take to a deserted island, I’m not sure any of Le Guin’s would make the cut, but no one author has shaped me more than her, and it is a tragedy that she is gone. Not because she was not successful (she was), or because she left us too soon (she did not), but because she believed so powerfully in a kinder, fairer, more equal world — one that, if it should ever come to pass, she will undoubtedly be greatly responsible for — and that she will never get to see it

The world is darker, crueler, without her presence, at a time when we so desperately needed her light, and we must all now work that much harder to balance out the shadows.

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