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Summary Article: Le Guin, Ursula K. from Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature: The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most critically acclaimed and influential writers of the twentieth century. Her prolific career includes utopian and feminist science fiction, fantasy, poetry, criticism, and mainstream fiction. She has produced 23 novels, 10 short story collections, 11 volumes of poetry, four translations, four works of criticism, 12 children's books, one screenplay, and three prose chapbooks, and has edited or coedited four anthologies.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California on October 21, 1929; earned a BA at Radcliffe College and an MA at Columbia University; and has lived in Portland, Oregon since 1958. Emerging as a writer of speculative fiction in the early 1960s, her first major successes came in 1968, A Wizard of Earthsea, and in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness. Wizard established her as a serious writer of fantasy who used traditional mythic themes and motifs, while also calling them into question. Left Hand is a groundbreaking novel in its treatment of gender as a social construct. Wizard introduces her primary fantasy universe, Earthsea; Left Hand, her science fiction universe, Hain. In the early 1970s, she continued her exploration of both fictional locales and added a third, the US west coast, with her 1971 novel, Lathe of Heaven, which examines the nature of reality.

With the publication of The Dispossessed (1974), set in her Hainish universe, Le Guin continued her investigation of gender, feminism, and social commentary on power, freedom, the environment, and individual responsibility. In this utopian novel she juxtaposes two contrasting societies seen from the perspective of a physicist doing his life's work and renewing his society's experiment in anarchism. Eye of the Heron (1978), which uses the same structure of contrasting societies, is again a polemic on human freedom.

Always Coming Home (1985), a return to the utopian questions of The Dispossessed, marks Le Guin's maturity as a feminist. The novel, an experiment in narrative structure, is a fictional ethnography, exploring a future culture, loosely based on that of Native Americans. Le Guin uses a familiar protagonist: the outsider observer, again drawing on the influences of her anthropologist father and her mother, a writer who was involved with her husband's work. Le Guin's use of societal conflict allows for social commentary while paying attention to the quotidian of human life, love, family, marriage, and the struggle to be human in the face of overwhelming opposition. In her poetry Le Guin considers the same issues and questions, with much the same evolving answers, as she becomes more political and polemical and feminist and global, and yet local, with her examination of family and of the mysterious and spiritual. These ideas and connections between speculative fiction and myth, thoughts on language and gender, feminism and power, are further explored in her three essay collections.

Le Guin's interest in Taoism is exemplified in her translation of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching (1997). Taoist notions of duality and unity and the balance are prominent in her fantasy fiction. Her fiction of the 1990s and early 2000s, with works set in both the fantasy world of Earthsea and the science fictional universe of Hain, including A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (story collection, 1994), Four Ways to Forgiveness (four interconnected novellas, 1994), The Telling (2001), and The Other Wind (2001), considers familiar themes and demonstrates her continued growth and evolution. The subject motifs are familiar, as is the overarching concern for the protection and nurturing of human freedom and the need to create a truly human community.

Le Guin is not exclusively a writer of speculative fiction, as her 1996 short story collection, Unlocking the Air, attests, featuring both mainstream and magic realism. Changing Planes (2003), another collection, contains both magic realism and fantasy, sharpened by her sense of satire, social commentary, and whimsy. Her young adult fantasy series, the Western Shore trilogy – Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007) – deals with coming of age and the abuse and use of power and family, found and given, and love and the magical. Lavinia (2008) is both historical fiction and fantasy, and in true feminist fashion, voice is given to the voiceless. Lavinia, whose hand is won by Aeneas in The Aeneid, tells her story. A master work of style and grace from a mature stylist, the rich language makes visible a distant world both magical and real.

Among her many awards, Le Guin has received the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for gender in speculative fiction (1994, 1996, 1997); the World Fantasy Award (1988); the Nebula and Hugo Awards, which are among science fiction and fantasy's highest honors (1969, 1973–5, 1988, 1990, 1995); and the National Book Award for Children's Books (1972).

SEE ALSO: Gender and the Novel (AF); Speculative Fiction (AF); Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (AF)

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
  • Bittner, J. (1984). Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.
  • Bloom, H. (ed.) (1987). Ursula K. Le Guin's “The Left Hand of Darkness.” New York: Chelsea House.
  • Cadden, M. (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults. New York: Routledge.
  • Cummins, E. (1990). Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Le Guin, U. (1968). A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam.
  • Le Guin, U. (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker.
  • Le Guin, U. (1971). The Lathe of Heaven. New York: Scribner's.
  • Le Guin, U. (1974). The Dispossessed. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Le Guin, U. (1978). The Eye of the Heron. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Le Guin, U. (1990). Tehanu. New York: Bantam.
  • Le Guin, U. (1994). A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. New York: HarperPrism.
  • Le Guin, U. (1995). Four Ways to Forgiveness. New York: HarperPrism.
  • Le Guin, U. (1996). Unlocking the Air and Other Stories. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Le Guin, U. (2002a). The Other Wind. New York: Harcourt.
  • Le Guin, U. (2002b). The Telling. New York: Harcourt.
  • Le Guin, U. (2003). Changing Planes. New York: Harcourt.
  • Le Guin, U. (2004). Gifts. New York: Harcourt.
  • Le Guin, U. (2006). Voices. New York: Harcourt.
  • Le Guin, U. (2007). Powers. New York: Harcourt.
  • Rochelle, W G. (2001). Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
  • Selinger, B. (1988). Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.
WARREN G. ROCHELLE
Wiley ©2011

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