Today, all readers of science fiction have occasion to celebrate the life’s work of Ursula K. Le Guin. We too often celebrate the life of people when they’re gone, but the passing of Le Guin feels less like a loss than it probably should. In large part, that’s because her stories celebrate the cycle of life and the search for harmony, of which death and life both play their parts. It’s also because Le Guin attained a cultural status almost commensurate to her accomplishments.
I’ve rambled about the canon quite a bit on this blog, not always coherently or with well-justified arguments. I don’t know if Le Guin will be mandatory reading one or two hundred years from now. But as many of the obituaries have noted, she earned pretty much every meaningful award in her field and several outside of it. Her books are widely read by adults and children, especially the Earthsea series. Her two most famous science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), are taught in high schools and universities, and literature students of any level often cut their critical teeth on her work. There is no question in my mind that at some point in the not-distant future, some ambitious TV producer will adapt one of her stories into a popular and critically-acclaimed series. At that point, Le Guin’s transition into the cultural mainstream will be complete. Mainstream acceptance isn’t a prerequisite for canonicity, but it helps.
When I say that Le Guin’s current cultural cachet is almost commensurate to her accomplishments, it’s not to downplay the accolades mentioned above. It’s to acknowledge that the effort Le Guin expended to pull herself—and by proxy, science fiction as a literary category—will likely never be recognized outside of fandom or scholarly circles. Vociferous and prolific, Le Guin was one of sf’s leading apologists and theorists: the sheer number of speeches, essays, and interviews she’s done, in which she always made a shrewd observation, uttered a provocation, or simply told the truth in a colorful way, are also a part of her legacy. That kind of labor requires diligence, ingenuity, a certain restlessness, and courage. It’s a labor that demands recognition not for its own sake. It’s never enough to be a great artist. Great artists require great apologists, and nobody was a better advocate of her work than Ursula K. Le Guin.
And she certainly is a great novelist. I find that I don’t ever appreciate her work the first time I read it. I always feel underwhelmed. Then I find that her stories and ideas become essential to my own way of thinking about and expressing things. It’s a process that takes years, a sedimentation. Which is to say that if I call Le Guin’s work foundational to my own approaches to culture and literature, I mean that it forms geological strata in my consciousness.
Like all great stories, Le Guin’s writing helps make sense of the world and our place in it. And like all great stories, her work always contains a moral framework. No great story is intelligible without a moral framework. One of the great fables of her career is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which a man whose dreams can literally remake reality must refuse to allow a utopian psychologist to use him to improve the world. It’s a very Taoist fable, in which the exercise of individual agency to remake the world in one man’s image leads ultimately to disharmony. It’s also a piercing feminist critique of the patriarchal hierarchies built into therapeutic discourse. More fundamentally, it recognizes that using power to reconstruct the lives of others is not always the right thing to do, even if it does improve security, stability, and happiness. Totalitarianism and the erasure of people and their history are utopian projects, but in the negative sense where the search for perfection really is the enemy of the good.
Much as I’ll miss Le Guin as an active commentator and personality, I won’t miss her presence. She’s right there in her writing, and we’ll hear her voice every time we read her words. Her voice has been echoing in my head for years already, and she’s been very companionable indeed. If our kids and their kids are lucky, they’ll hear her voice echoing far into the future.