This article may contain spoilers.
When author Ursula K Le Guin spoke in 2014 about the need for writers “who can see alternatives to how we live now…to other ways of being”, she may well have been talking about herself. With a writing career that began 60 years ago, Le Guin had done exactly that, leaving behind a vast body of written work and a formidable legacy when she died on January 22, 2018.
Today, she is best remembered for her revolutionary science fiction and fantasy novels The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea series. Richly realised and with striking prose, Le Guin’s writing is as imaginative as it is subversive, informed by her restless questioning of the world.
She often revisited her work, either through new writing, or by reflecting on what she could have done differently. This literary evolution can be charted through her novels, constantly pushing past traditional boundaries.
The dark-skinned protagonist
Le Guin’s acclaimed Earthsea series best reflects her journey. Earthsea is classified as a young adult, fantasy series – a categorisation that Le Guin has constantly rejected. The first three books came out in quick succession from 1968 to 1972, and followed traditional fantasy storytelling – largely, a young boy with magical powers who learns how to be mage (Le Guin has had some thoughts about another wildly popular and similar series).
But her protagonist Ged is dark-skinned – described as “copper-brown” – while the raiders who invaded his island were a “savage people, white-skinned, yellow-haired and fierce”. Hardly unremarkable now, but writing in the late 1960s, Le Guin faced resistance and book covers of A Wizard of Earthsea were white-washed – “bathed in bleach”, as she noted.
To the mind’s eye, there is constant a reminder to visualise Ged as a dark-skinned hero. “I saw myself as luring white readers to identify with the hero, to get inside his skin and only then find it was a dark skin,” Le Guin wrote later. She also subverted the idea of a conventional fantasy novel antagonist by making Ged face up against the darkness within that he unleashes in a display of power.
If the first three Earthsea books were subversive, Tehanu – the fourth novel that followed, 18 years later, was a complete “revisioning”, as she called it. With Tehanu, Le Guin reimagined Earthsea, with the elderly woman Tenar and a battered, burn-scarred child as protagonists, and an even older Ged, who returns home after losing his magical powers.
Tehanu was more than just about writing from the perspective of a woman, it was a tale told “through the eyes of the marginal, the voiceless, the powerless”. It was no hollow feminist tribute, but questioned the fundamental and rigid structures of the world – real and imaginary.
Le Guin was blunt about the unfavourable response to Tehanu, which decried her “muddying the waters” of fantasy storytelling with politics and gender. “The politics were there all along…” she wrote.
Indeed, for she had rarely shied away from either.
Genderless worlds, utopian anarchies
The Left Hand of Darkness is among Le Guin’s most acclaimed books but also messy, as she herself had once described it. The science-fiction novel, published more than half a century ago, is set in the time-travelling future on an ice-cold alien planet called Gethen.
By leaving her human male envoy Genly Ai stumbling among androgynous aliens, Le Guin put forth a radical reimagining of our contemporary gendered world and simultaneously upended the norms of gender in science fiction.
The sexuality of Gethenians follows a 28-day cycle and its peak, they either take the form of a male or female being, and then return to an androgynous state. Through Ai’s unlearning of his biases, Le Guin also offered a profound exploration of what it meant to be human and to love – beyond boundaries and assumptions.
Though Le Guin removed biological gender from her book, she left the masculine default “he” intact throughout the story, leading to much debate among feminists. In an essay titled “Is Gender Necessary” published in 1976, seven years after The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin reflected at length on her novel as she struggled to make sense of the debates it had had sparked. “The fact is that the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort; as far as I can see, it is a book about betrayal and fidelity,” she wrote.
Another 11 years later, Le Guin came full circle as she revisited her essay, titling it “Is Gender Necessary, Redux,” and annotated her words, noting that she had been defensive and resentful. Feminists had wanted her to braver, she said, and they were “justified in asking more courage”. She commented on her limitations in locking the Gethenians into heterosexuality and advocated the use of the neutral “they”. Sometime later, Le Guin wrote another story set in the same world, with the default pronoun “she”.
Gender was not the only politics that Le Guin tackled. In The Dispossessed, set in the same time-travelling universe as The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin made worlds collide: an earth-like capitalist society and a utopian anarchy. If The Left Hand of Darkness was a “thought experiment” on gender, The Dispossessed was born of Le Guin’s disquiet at the American war in Vietnam.
First published in 1974, The Dispossessed resonates powerfully today alongside the post-pandemic discourse on the excesses of billionaires and stark income disparities: “You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
Evolution, revolutions, and writing
For Le Guin, writing was a revolutionary act. “When the world turns upside over, you can’t go on thinking upside down… Visions must be re-visioned,” she wrote. Her uncharted, courageous literary journey reflects that wonderfully, and, five years after her passing, I can only wonder about the worlds she could have re-visioned for us today.
We will never know.