The Influence Of Ursula K. Le Guin
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Ursula Le Guin has died at 88. Her books included "A Wizard Of Earthsea" and "The Left Hand of Darkness." She wrote science fiction and fantasy with a literary flair and a feminist sensibility. NPR Books editor Petra Mayer says she influenced countless writers who came after.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Ursula K. Le Guin submitted her first story to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction when she was just 11 years old. It was about a time machine, and it was rejected. That didn't stop her. Very little stopped her. When she began publishing as an adult in the 1960s, sci-fi and fantasy had few women and no respect. But she helped change that, winning a slew of awards and forcing mainstream critics to pay attention. Author Mary Robinette Kowal considered Le Guin a mentor and a friend.
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL: I think that she did a lot for science fiction and fantasy, not just for women and women's roles because of her feminism but also legitimizing us as an art form.
MAYER: Kowal met Le Guin when they worked together on an adaptation of one of Le Guin's stories, but she first read the "Earthsea" books when she was 12. "Earthsea" is a world of islands full of people who aren't white, which was revolutionary when the first book came out in 1968. It was also a world where magic was a balance between power and responsibility.
KOWAL: What I remember most about it was the power of words - because that is how the magic in "The Wizard Of Earthsea" works - and how careless words could have hugely unintended consequences.
MAYER: And Le Guin's words had a lot of power. Before she created "Earthsea," wizards were old white men with long beards - Merlin and Gandalf. Kowal says Le Guin turned that image on its head, introducing characters like a young magician learning his craft and eventually women who weren't just the wicked sorceresses of the past. So if you're reading a book about, say, a boy at a magic school or a young woman who discovers she carries a long-lost talent for wizardry, you're reading someone who owes something to Le Guin. And if you're reading a short story collection that blurs the borders of the speculative and the real, you're reading someone who owes something to Le Guin because she was one of the first writers to cross those borders too.
She was the daughter of two anthropologists, which had a profound effect on her work. You can see it in one of her best-known novels, "The Left Hand Of Darkness," which is about a man from Earth who arrives as a diplomat on a planet where gender is fluid and ambiguous. And he has to find a way to bridge the differences between his own world and theirs. It was far ahead of its time, and it has as much of anthropology and literary fiction in it as it does space saga. Again, Mary Robinette Kowal.
KOWAL: There were a lot of people who will read an Ursula Le Guin book and go, well, this isn't science fiction, it's literature. But, of course, it is science fiction. And so a lot of times, she can be a gateway drug for people.
MAYER: Le Guin did write plain old literature and children's books and volumes of advice for writers and poetry and essays on everything under the sun. In fact, as she told NPR in 2015...
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URSULA K. LE GUIN: I still kind of twitch and growl when I'm reduced to being the science fiction writer. I'm a novelist and increasingly a poet. And sometimes I wish they'd call me that.
MAYER: Le Guin had stopped writing fiction by then. She said that well had gone dry. But she hadn't lost her voice. She attended the National Book Awards in 2014 to accept a lifetime achievement prize, which she did with a fiery speech about commerce, freedom and art.
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LE GUIN: Resistance and change often begin in art and very often in our art, the art of words.
MAYER: Ursula K. Le Guin died Monday at her home in Portland with her husband by her side. She was 88.
Petra Mayer, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOOK'S "CHANGING WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.