Until yesterday, had you asked me to name my favorite living writers, Ursula K. Le Guin’s name would appear near the top of the list. As of yesterday, I can no longer say this. Le Guin passed away at the age of 88, and left millions of fans bereft—fans with whom she had shared some of the finest science fiction and fantasy written in the 20th century, and with whom she happily shared her wisdom and advice in the free online workshops she held in her later years, her way of connecting with readers when she retired from writing.
Like many people, I first came to Le Guin’s work through her 1969 Nebula and Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that exploded ideas about what science fiction could be and do. That novel is part of a series of stories called the “Hainish cycle,” which—like C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy—are deeply philosophical and deeply sensitive to the emotional and psychological resonances of the questions they grapple with.
But unlike Lewis, Le Guin sought not to resurrect old mythologies, but to show how the boundaries and divisions we take for granted might easily become arbitrary and unfamiliar; how we might become something entirely new and different.
There are many other writers who come to mind when I think of Le Guin—Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, Iain Banks, and, of course, Tolkien. Like many of the best writers in her genres, Le Guin’s fiction is contemplative as well as spectacular—she could write space opera, sword and sorcery, and adventure stories just as well as any of her contemporaries, but her sustained focus on the nuanced interrelations of character and theme—on the agony of choice, the possibility of freedom and connection without coercion, the social and ecological consequences of blind acquisition and thoughtless action—gave her work a depth many of her contemporaries lacked.
Le Guin’s anarchist environmentalism and “tough-minded feminist sensibility” opened up paths for dozens of writers who came after her and who also did not fit the typical molds established by the pulpy magazine stories of the early twentieth century. She was a scholar, earning an M.A. in French and Italian literature and doing doctoral work in France on a Fulbright in the mid-fifties. But unlike certain, more insecure, writers, Le Guin did not wear her learning on her sleeve. She wove it into the texture of her narratives and the allusive lyricism of her prose.
Le Guin’s highly distinctive qualities—her poetry and inquiry, toughness and sensitivity—are evident in even minor, lesser-known stories. Today, to celebrate her life, we bring you a few of those stories, as adapted into radio dramas by the 70s program Mind Webs and the late 80s NPR showcase Sci-Fi Radio. At the top of the post, hear “Diary of a Rose,” below, “Field of Vision,” and, above, “The End.”
And, just above, hear part one of a CBC dramatization of Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, the fifth novel in the Hainish cycle, though chronologically the cycle’s beginning. (Hear all six parts of the dramatized novel here.) Subtitled “an Ambiguous Utopia,” the novel, writes DePauw University’s Judah Bierman, is “a prizeworthy contribution to the debate about the responsibility of knowledge, of the visionary and of the scientist, in a planned society.” But like all of Le Guin’s fiction, it is so much more than that, a work that bears repeated reading, and listening, and that never exhausts its possibilities.
Note: If you're interested in getting professionally read versions of Le Guin's novels, consider signing up for a 30-day free trial to Audible.com. When you sign up for a free trial, they let you download two audiobooks for free, and keep the books, regardless of whether you become a long-term subscriber or not. Get details here.