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Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le GuinAKA Ursula Kroeber

Born: 21-Oct-1929
Birthplace: Berkeley, CA
Died: 22-Jan-2018
Location of death: Portland, OR
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Female
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Novelist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: The Left Hand of Darkness

Author Ursula K. LeGuin is best known for science fiction and fantasy classics The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the Earthsea saga. In addition to novels, her work encompasses short stories, screenplays, essays, poetry, literature for children and young adults. Respected in academic circles, LeGuinn's literary work is noteworthy for its lyrical and often precise use of language, for its investigation of alternative societies, and for inciting social awareness through intricately woven tales. Her work is heavily flavored by her early exposure to anthropology, her work as a poet, her deep interest in Taoism, and her own "thoughtful feminism".

Born Ursula Kroeber on 21 October 1929 in Berkeley, California, she is the daughter of two famous Berkeley academics, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and author Theodora Kroeber. Companioned by three brothers, she grew up with a generous and eclectic home library, family storytimes around the campfire, and a passion for science fiction pulp novels. Her inclination to write science fiction surfaced early: by the age of eleven she had already authored her first science fiction story, and received her first rejection slip.

She was one year behind Philip K. Dick at Berkeley High School, but says she doesn't remember meeting him there. After high school she attended Radcliffe College, then Columbia University, earning respectively a B.A. and an M.A. Her area of emphasis was the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, and the languages in which they were written. After graduation, Le Guin was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and she headed for France for further studies. Enroute aboard the Queen Mary, she met historian Charles Le Guin. A few months later, in Paris, they married. They moved to Macon, Georgia the following year, 1954, where Mrs. Le Guin became an instructor in French at Mercer University. A couple years later they moved to Idaho where she taught at the University of Idaho at Moscow, before settling in Portland, Oregon in 1958.

In 1957, their daughter Elisabeth was born, followed soon after by two more children: Caroline (1959) and Theodore (1964). Le Guin shifted gears to accommodate her new role as mother, settling into the dual life of daytime caregiver and evening writer. She has since said that it was this period of her life that caused her to proclaim that one person couldn't do two jobs, but that two people (she and husband Charles) could do three. Certainly the challenges of balancing creativity, work, and nurturing show up in the earthy wisdom of later novels such as the The Dispossessed (1974) -- which passingly compares the necessity, and relative worth, of intellectual prowess/creativity to that of the manual labor that supports and nurtures all of society, including of course intellectuals.

Eventually, Le Guin's children all went off to school, leaving her with more time to write and, eventually, to teach. By 1971 she was teaching writing at Pacific University and thereafter she taught at a variety of universities from Seattle, Washington to Melbourne, Australia. But Le Guin's writing career had more than logistical hurdles to overcome. Although editors were routinely praising the quality of her writing, they also found her stories difficult to pigeonhole. Typically they were rejected as not being "quite right" for the style or genre of a particular magazine or publishing house. In large part this was because much of her early material was neither wholly fantasy/sci-fi nor quite mainstream fiction. In later years the whole new sub genre of magical realism, introduced by South American writers, would underscore the limitations of such constricting genres.

In 1962 Le Guin finally managed some small success, selling "April in Paris", a sci-fi time travel piece, to Fantastic magazine. She also managed to publish one of her genre-blurring Orsinian Tales, although payment was in magazines, not cash. Then, in 1964, after getting nothing but rejection slips for all of her five previous novels, she finally struck pay dirt with Rocannon's World. Her talent suddenly found commerical acceptance in a whole string of successes that would quickly include Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), and A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). She garnered additional notice when the latter won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, giving a healthy boost to the following Earthsea Installments. Though it was originally intended for a younger audience, the series eventually became popular with adult fantasy readers as well.

Le Guin's next major breakthrough came in 1969 with The Left Hand of Darkness, which featured a society of highly-cultured, gender-neutral beings who could, during certain hormonal phases, morph temporarily into males or females. The novel won her the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, science fiction's top honors. It also marked Le Guin's emergence as a major female voice within the science fiction genre, a field which had heretofore been dominated by men, and therefore male perspectives. Coincidentally, the novel tackled issues of gender roles and biological determination just as the Women's Rights movement was returning into the consciousness of mainstream America. For example, it was only in 1968 that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled it was illegal for employers to advertise specifically for men to fill positions.

In The Dispossessed (1974), which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, Le Guin introduced another alternative society, this one shaped and defined by an all-inclusive communist ideology that required non-possessive sexual relations and a complete sharing of all manual labor, regardless of gender. Within the novel's engaging context Le Guin managed to make a powerful statement about the primacy of cultural conditioning over biology. Shevek, the protagonist, leaves his homeworld Anarres, where women are treated as men's social and political equals, for Urras, where they are not. While the women of his homeworld are sturdy, independent, and forthright, the women of Urras seem frivolous, vain, and obsessed with social intrigue and deception.

But gender relations have not been the only realm of human assumptions Le Guin has sought to lay bare for our consideration. In The Lathe of Heaven (1972), in which therapy patient George Orr reveals that his dreams can actually change real life, Le Guin challenges the notion that the world would be a better place if only humans had the power to impose upon it their own utopian vision (often a chief motivator behind the human quest for better and flashier technology). Orr's therapist, Dr. Haber, leads him to dream a world that is intended to be a vast improvement over the old climate problems and overpopulation. But matters ultimately go from bad to worse, betraying the fact that the world, both social and natural, is far more complicated than our limited intellects could imagine.

Meanwhile Le Guin's Earthsea saga sidesteps the usual fantasy formula of good conquering evil through exciting self-righteous slaughter and triumph. Instead the Earthsea books deal with the principle of interrelatedness, of all things being part of a larger whole. "Victory" is not one side abolishing the other, but truth unravelling conflict, bringing opposing forces such as light and dark, life and death, male and female, back into harmonious balance. The hero of much of the story, Ged, triumphs by at last recognizing the monster that pursues him as being his own shadow self. Through understanding it, he defuses the power it held over him, and is able find safety and peace at last.

Although her work has long continued this tradition of challenging deeply held, and poorly reasoned, assumptions, her stories have come in recent years to seem somehow "earthier" -- less about fantastical places that challenge the mind, and more about deeply rooted characters who challenge the heart. These later works include Always Coming Home (1985) and the The Telling (2000), both of which champion the richness of culture and human relationships over technology and glitzy consumerism. Simultaneously, these later works display Le Guin's weaning away from predominantly male protagonists.

Throughout her nearly fifty years as a writer Le Guin has received her share of criticism and rejection, not to mention a good deal of cold-shouldering by those readers who discount fantasy or speculative fiction. But she has also received an astonishing amount of praise and recognition -- the recipient of some fifty different awards and honors, plus a few honorary degrees, she presently holds an impressive five Nebula and five Hugo Awards, along with the SFWA Grand Master Award (2003). Her work has been translated onto a variety of media, including dance and audio tape. Thus far two films have been based on her work, The Lathe of Heaven (PBS-TV, 1979) and Earthsea, although unfortunately the latter (aired on the Sci-fi Channel in 2005) strayed too far afield to truly represent the novels.

Although now in her mid-seventies, Le Guin continues to actively publish, teach writers workshops, and to participate in various literary organizations. A collection of her manuscripts is held at the University of Oregon Library in Eugene, Oregon.

Father: Alfred Kroeber (anthropologist, b. 1876, d. 1960)
Mother: Theodora Kroeber Quinn (writer, b. 1897, d. 1979)
Brother: Clifton Kroeber
Brother: Theodore Korober
Husband: Charles Le Guin (historian, m. 1953, until her death)
Daughter: Elisabeth Le Guin (b. 1957)
Daughter: Caroline Le Guin (b. 1959)
Son: Theodore Le Guin (b. 1964)

    High School: Berkeley High School, Berkeley, CA (1947)
    University: BA, Radcliffe College (1951)
    University: MA Romance Languages, Columbia University (1952)
    Teacher: Mercer College
    Teacher: University of Idaho

    John Kerry for President
    Phi Beta Kappa Society
    Hugo (five times)
    Nebula (five times)
    National Book Award 1973 for The Farthest Shore
    World Fantasy Award 1988 for Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight (novella)
    World Fantasy Award 2002 for The Other Wind (novel)
    Library of Congress Living Legend 2000

Official Website:

Author of books:
Rocannon's World (1966, novel)
Planet of Exile (1966, novel)
City of Illusions (1967, novel)
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968, novel)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969, novel)
The Lathe of Heaven (1971, novel)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971, novel)
The Farthest Shore (1972, novel)
The Word for World Is Forest (1972, novel)
The Dispossessed (1974, novel)
The Language of the Night (1979, essays)
Always Coming Home (1985, novel)
Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989, essays)
Tehanu (1990, novel)
The Telling (2000, novel)

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