Truthdigger: The Late, Great Ursula K. Le Guin
The world lost a literary great last week as Ursula K. Le Guin put down her pen for the final time. The feminist, environmentalist, anarchist author of more than 20 books died Jan. 22 in her Portland, Ore., home at age 88. Since then, the internet has been flooded with affectionate pieces about the writer, with one memorable headline claiming, “We Lost Ursula K. Le Guin When We Needed Her Most.”
The daughter of an anthropologist and a writer, Le Guin was born and raised in Berkeley, Calif., the youngest in a close-knit family of intellectuals that, along with the Tao Te Ching and Native American stories, helped shape one of the most influential fantasy writers of our time. But even the term “fantasy” doesn’t seem to do Le Guin justice. Many agree that her books defied genre, though she seemed to welcome and champion the science-fiction label applied to her work.
Wise and deeply political, Le Guin often wrote about ideas that pushed the boundaries of our accepted realms and yet forced us to see the simple truths of human existence. Her most notable work, “The Dispossessed,” touched upon anarchism while creating a world in which gender was of no consequence to human interactions. Other books, such as “The Tombs of Atuan,” reveal one of her central concerns as it explores the multiplicity of viewpoints and voices that make up a story. For more on her literary work, take a look at this handy list put together by The Guardian: Don’t know where to start? The essential novels of Ursula K Le Guin.
The author, however, did not limit her political musings to her fiction, being known as a progressive activist in both words and action. When Google attempted to circumvent copyright laws, for example, Le Guin led the fight against the tyranny of the internet giant. In her 2014 acceptance speech of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th annual National Book Awards ceremony, the prolific author delivered a warning that seemed to predict the epoch we now find ourselves deeply, darkly submerged in, saying, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” In the same speech, Le Guin warned against the dangers of our current economic system: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”
In a 2015 essay, Le Guin mused about “what is left of the Left?” and offered her take on the Occupy movement:
“The Left,” a meaningful term ever since the French Revolution, took on wider significance with the rise of socialism, anarchism, and communism. The Russian revolution installed a government entirely leftist in conception; leftist and rightist movements tore Spain apart; democratic parties in Europe and North America arrayed themselves between the two poles; liberal cartoonists portrayed the opposition as a fat plutocrat with a cigar, while reactionaries in the United States demonized “commie leftists” from the 1930s through the Cold War. The left/right opposition, though often an oversimplification, for two centuries was broadly useful as a description and a reminder of dynamic balance.
In the twenty-first century we go on using the terms, but what is left of the Left? The failure of state communism, the quiet entrenchment of a degree of socialism in democratic governments, and the relentless rightward movement of politics driven by corporate capitalism have made much progressive thinking seem antiquated, or redundant, or illusory. The Left is marginalized in its thought, fragmented in its goals, unconfident of its ability to unite. In America particularly, the drift to the right has been so strong that mere liberalism is now the terrorist bogey that anarchism or socialism used to be, and reactionaries are called moderates. …
A lot of people are seeking consistent, constructive thinking on which to base action—a frustrating search. Theoretical approaches that seem promising turn out, like the Libertarian Party, to be Ayn Rand in drag; immediate and effective solutions to a problem turn out, like the Occupy movement, to lack structure and stamina for the long run. Young people, people this society blatantly short-changes and betrays, are looking for intelligent, realistic, long-term thinking: not another ranting ideology, but a practical working hypothesis, a methodology of how to regain control of where we’re going. Achieving that control will require a revolution as powerful, as deeply affecting society as a whole, as the force it wants to harness.
Vice Motherboard’s Claire L. Evans relays from an interview with Le Guin what she hoped for her works beyond her lifetime: “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.”
And if the litany of writers she has influenced, including greats such as Junot Diaz, aren’t enough of a testament to the power of her work, one hopes that Le Guin’s many words are heeded—especially, though not only, her wish that her words continue to be read and loved.
Here’s another great quote by our Truthdigger to tide readers over on their way to getting their hands on her works: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”