The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

A tribute to the legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died earlier this week at the age of 88. Her speculative fiction was wildly imaginative, literary and laced with feminist outrage.
Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific science fiction writer. She died on Jan. 22, 2018. (Marian Wood Kolisch/

Ursula K. Le Guin was an imaginative inventor of other worlds, and a brilliant observer of the state of affairs on our own planet. 

Her career transformed her genre, and continued full force into the last year of her life. She died on Monday, at the age of 88.

Hard times are coming, when we'll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.- Ursula K. Le Guin

Of her more than 50 books, the best-known are The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven and the Wizard of Earthsea series.

She won a slew of awards — including the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Award — and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

Margaret Atwood has described Le Guin as "a creator of other worlds" whose writing is about not just the future but the here and now:

Speaking to CBC Radio in 2004, Margaret Atwood describes Le Guin as "a creator of other worlds." 0:57

Le Guin was also a master stylist. Atwood says her attention to language raised the bar for other writers. 

"She brought a degree of literary artistry and care to the prose. In other words, she said, 'This is a serious form. It shall be taken seriously as writing.'"

Author Ursula Le Guin with her award at the 2005 PEN USA Annual LitFest Awards Gala. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

The traditional way to describe Le Guin is to say she was "more than just a science fiction writer." But she always bristled at the idea that there was any such thing as "just a science fiction writer."

In interviews and speeches, she insisted that speculative fiction could be intellectually rigorous and politically resonant. In her writing, she proved that to be true. 

People are always telling me that they don't read science fiction. They always seem to think that I will appreciate this information in some way. I have learned to say, "well, what a pity."- Ursula K. Le Guin

She had little patience for anyone who dismissed the genre as a pursuit for children.

Ursula Le Guin describes why she thinks speculative fiction could be intellectually rigourous and politically resonant. 0:39

Le Guin was a feminist and a secular humanist, with a strong commitment to racial equality. Her writing offered plenty of alternatives to the power structures of contemporary society.

Cover of Ursula Le Guin's novel 'The Left Hand of Darkness,' first published in 1969. (HarperCollins)
She set her novel The Left Hand of Darkness on a planet where all the inhabitants are androgynous and fluctuate between genders.

In the words of one character, "The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? ... There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected — protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being." 

It would be provocative if it were published tomorrow. Le Guin published it in 1969. 

As someone who spent her life imagining possible futures, she was deeply concerned about where our own society was headed. In 2014, the National Book Foundation honoured her with a lifetime achievement award. 

Le Guin — a petite woman in her mid-80s, with round glasses, a creased face, and a wry grin — took to the stage. She delivered a fiery and prophetic speech that brought the audience to their feet. 

Books aren't just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.- Ursula K. Le Guin

Click 'listen' at the top of this page to hear our full tribute.

The CBC Radio program Ideas aired a two-part series about Ursula Le Guin in April 2004, called "The Word for World Is Imagination." You can find that series here.  

Eleanor Wachtel, host of Writers & Company, spoke with Le Guin in 1993. You can hear there conversation here.