Ursula Le Guin: Realist of a Larger Reality

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By Allen Callaci

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced the 2018 Oscar nominees on the same day that the world lost Ursula Le Guin. It seemed like both a sick cosmic joke and perfect symmetry that Hollywood’s public wrestling match with the complex issues of gender would share space alongside the news of Ursula Le Guin’s passing. Le Guin—a one-woman #metoo movement—was a revolutionary figure who cracked the glass ceiling of the male-dominated science-fiction and fantasy genre into 10 million sharp, shiny shards that can never be completely vacuumed up.

We can see her impact from here to The Handmaid’s Tale.

To what extent did males dominate the genre that Le Guin conquered? Consider this: 200 years ago, the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published and Shelley was not acknowledged as the author because the publisher worried that the masses would be reluctant to pick the book up if they knew that a female wrote it. Over 170 years later, J.K. Rowling’s publisher asked that Rowling use her initials rather than her full name for the first Harry Potter book because they thought that they would lose valuable young male readers if they got wind that a female author penned it. Ursula Le Guin refused to adapt a gender-neutral pen name to accommodate a predominantly male audience

Science fiction gets unfairly characterized as a vehicle to transport readers to different worlds. Le Guin, like the best of science fiction authors, knew better. She understood its power to let us see our world in new, fresh, and bold ways. From Gilgamesh to Black Mirror, the finest and most ageless of science fiction tells us more about the here and the now than the future.

Long before Caitlyn Jenner arrived, Urusula Le Guin crafted a world of alien beings who changed their gender at will and without fear of social condemnation as she did in her most celebrated work, 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness—reflecting and transcending its time. It does not reek like a stick of sandalwood-scented incense from the Age of Aquarius. It survives because it does not simplify and sacrifice the complex politics of sexual identity for the sake of a few more sales. It does not tiptoe around the kitchen at midnight so as to not to wake someone up. She did not write it to become the next big Hollywood franchise, pacifying stranded masses during the course of a three-hour flight delay or to sell Happy Meals.

And we won.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality. Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. – Ursula Le Guin

As the 2018 awards season hyperventilates towards its much-hyped and soon-forgotten conclusion, may the universe pause a moment to honor Ursula Le Guin—a singular artist who left behind a rich, timeless body of work that cannot be melted down and reduced to a 8.5 pound, 13.5 pound, gold-plated statue.