Six impossible things

Missing Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin was one of the greats of the SF/F field.

It hurts to have to write that sentence in the past tense, even though 88 years is a good run by anyone’s standards.

I’ve been reading le Guin’s work since I was thirteen and Rocannon’s World showed up at the News Agency where my Dad let us each buy a book or comic when he stopped there to get the Sunday paper. A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the few “young adult” books I was willing to read in public when I was in that awkward high school phase where you’re trying to show everyone how grown-up you are, and you don’t want to be caught dead reading anything aimed at “young” readers. She was one of the first authors whose work I learned to look for actively by name, instead of simply browsing the display hoping a familiar name would turn up.

The Earthsea books are, in fact, the first thing I think of when I think of le Guin’s work – the young, overly-ambitious wizard running from, pursuing, and finally accepting his shadow-self; the creepy underground world of the young priestess; the omnipresent ocean voyages; and above all, the importance of true names. No wizard could cast a spell without knowing the true name of whoever or whatever he was casting the spell on. Names – words – shaped the world.

Ursula le Guin was a wizard with words, and hers shaped the worlds of more than one SF and fantasy writer over the course of her career. But much as I love it, it isn’t her fiction that influenced me. The mental landscape that she occupied was too different from mine. Her work is literary and metaphorical and complex in fundamental ways that are foreign to my mindset. I can love and appreciate them; I can (and I hope, have) learn from them; but I can’t emulate them. No, what I will miss the most are her essays.

The Language of the Night was a revelation to me in the way that The Left Hand of Darkness was a revelation to many of my contemporaries and peers. I’ve read it over at least as many times as I’ve reread her works of fiction. Dancing at the Edge of the World, her second essay collection, was equally important to me. Steering the Craft, her book of writing exercises, is the only such book I’ve ever found useful, and one of a select few books on writing that I own in multiple copies (one of which never leaves the shelf behind my computer unless I’m rereading or referring to it).

I didn’t always agree with her arguments – in fact, I held some passionate debates with my cats over some of her positions – but I always understood where she stood and what points she was making. More important, whether I agreed or not, her essays always, always made me think. And that is what I value most and will miss the most about this woman whom I did not personally know, and who I met only once in my life (in a hallway at a convention, for about 30 seconds in passing).

She made me think.

  1. I know in an intellectual sort of way that everyone will die at some point in time, but it is still hard to fathom that someone like Ursula LeGuin could be gone. I too grew up on Earthsea books, and while I haven’t returned to them as an adult as much as some of my other childhood books, they still hold a special fond place in my heart. Not to mention the gender-bending of The Left Hand of Darkness.

  2. “Art frees us; and the art of words can take us beyond anything we can say in words.”
    —Ursula K. LeGuin

  3. Oh thank you I didn’t know she had essays! This sounds so interesting 🙂 I love your Blog

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