Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin

It was only a couple of months ago that The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin was featured on this blog - not for the first time - in my post about planetary physics and inter-world relations in SF. Le Guin's double planet system is rendered to brilliant effect in her exploration of power and freedom in the societies of capitalist Urras and anarchist Anarres, and this contrast provides the framework for the ambiguous utopian currents that run through the novel.

It is often these themes - of living and being otherwise - that have come to the fore in the tributes to Le Guin, following her death on the 22 January. Here, I'd like to give a round-up of those that struck me the most, alongside some interesting interviews and sources that I've come across during the last few years.

Among the more comprehensive and interesting obituaries of Le Guin are those published by the Guardian, the New Yorker and the New York Times. The novelist Julie Phillips, who's currently working on a biography of Le Guin, writes in the New Yorker, 'Le Guin never stopped insisting on the beauty and subversive power of the imagination. Fantasy and speculation weren’t only about invention; they were about challenging the established order'. Meanwhile, SF critics John Clute (Guardian) and Gerald Jonas (New York Times) draw attention to her distinctive narrative style. Jonas writes, 'the conflicts (her characters) face are typically rooted in a clash of cultures and resolved more by conciliation and self-sacrifice than by swordplay or space battles'.

Fellow writers have also paid tribute and, in some cases, shared their recollections of Le Guin; Indian SF writer Vandana Singh knew the author over a number of years and quotes the famous line from The Dispossessed, 'True journey is return', in the title to her blog post. She also recalls of their correspondence, 'our exchanges, though infrequent, were always interesting. We talked about writing, but also about our mutual interest in non-human others [...] We discussed the tendency of modern humans to succumb to the techno-fix, even for complex issues like climate change. I think it was clearer to her than to most people that technology by itself can never solve anything if the underlying paradigm remains unchanged'. In Neil Gaiman's piece, 'A Magic of True Speaking', he recalls reading The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time, and writes that the book 'opened my head and made me view gender differently - not as something fixed, nor even as something important, but as something mutable and less pertinent than what kind of person you are; the trilogy made me look at the world in a new way, imbued everything with a magic that was so much deeper than the magic I’d encountered before then'.

Ursula Le Guin (1929 - 2018)

What better way to end this post than to hear from the author herself. Some links to Le Guin's wonderful and thought-provoking public speeches and interviews include:

The BBC radio programme 'Ursula Le Guin at 85', featuring commentators including Neil Gaiman, in which Le Guin speaks about her upbringing and her early encounters with otherness through her Father's anthropological work with Ishi, the last Native American of his tribe.

A clip from Arwen Curry's 2018 feature documentary film about Le Guin called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. In this clip, Le Guin talks about the creation of the Earthsea novels: 'I start pretty much with place, and then the people grow up in the place'.

Transcript of Le Guin's 'Left-handed commencement address' to the 1983 graduating class of Mills College (Liberal Arts women's college in Oakland, California): 'Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own [...] I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is'.

Le Guin's speech, upon receiving the National Book Awards' Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. She says, 'I rejoice in accepting (the award) for and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long - my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction'.

Le Guin writing on the competing forces - or the yin and yang - of utopia, published on the Electric Literature site. In this piece, she suggests, 'my guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival [...] involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth'.

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