Friday Hoyden: Ursula K. Le Guin

tigtog asked if someone could do a Friday Hoyden piece on Ursula K. Le Guin for her 80th birthday… last year. Le Guin’s 81st birthday was yesterday on the 21st October 2010: this is going up in time for it to still be her birthday in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Photo of Ursula Le Guin, 2004

Photo of Ursula Le Guin, 2004 (Wikipedia user Hajor, Creative Commons BY-SA)

A little capsule summary for people who haven’t read her work: Le Guin is a novelist, poet and essayist. She is best known for science fiction and fantasy, particularly the six Earthsea books (five novels and a collection of stories) set in an archipelago world with advanced magic and pre-industrial tech; and various books set in her Hainish universe, which is a future series in which Earth, among other planets among relatively nearby stars, turn out to have all have hominid species on them, established some millions of years ago by a still existing ancestral species the Hainish, in a series of biological/sociological experiments. This has allowed her to write, for example, The Left Hand of Darkness, Winter’s King and Coming of Age in Karhide, set in a world of primates with a sort of oestrous cycle in which their bodies can become either male or female, and who have otherwise no gender or sexuality; and The Matter of Seggri, about a world on which there are about sixteen women born for every man, and men are kept apart with their role in society being purely exhibition of strength, sex, and providing sperm.

Le Guin is something of a goto name for someone who wants to make sure their list of Great Science Fiction includes something, anything, by a woman: she’s white, she has by now become a big name and is award-winning and Taken Seriously (see Guest Post by Alisa Krasnostein: The Invisibility of Women in Science Fiction from June). I… do think she’s worth reading anyway! But don’t stop there, I doubt she’d want you to.

I’ve enjoyed Le Guin’s writing for years, but here is her crowning Hoyden moment for me, in a 2001 interview by Nick Gevers, a science fiction editor and critic:

[Gevers asks] Who, for you, are the finest SF authors now writing — both your fellow feminist writers and more generally?

[Le Guin answers] First I am to list fellow feminists and then… non-fellow anti-feminists? Come on, Nick, let’s get out of the pigeonholes. If feminism is the idea that differences between the genders, beyond the strictly physiological, are an interesting subject of study, but have not been determined, and so are not a sound basis for society to use in prescribing or proscribing any proclivity or activity — which is what I think it is — then I probably don’t read any non-feminist SF writers, these days. Do you?

Here’s a few selected pieces of Le Guin’s writing:

Le Guin has a fairly large website with links to most of her recent online writing.

If I had to recommend a single piece of writing of hers, I would say that its the short story The Day Before the Revolution (probably easiest to find in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters), which probably benefits a lot if you read The Dispossessed for context first (The Dispossessed is a fine novel, so not just for context). The Day Before the Revolution was published when Le Guin was 45 years old. She wasn’t old at the time, and I am not old yet, but it is the closest I come to understanding how it might be.

Happy 81st birthday Ursula K. Le Guin!

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

Tags: , , ,

22 replies

  1. I love her writing so, so much. Great choice for a Friday Hoyden. Happy birthday, UKL!

  2. Ursula Le Guin’s writing has shaped my life more than any other author I’ve encountered. I think it’s safe to say that I would not be doing my PhD in children’s literature today if it weren’t for the Earthsea novels.

  3. Yes. I can’t remember when I first read the Earthsea Quartet, but I was pretty young, and she has been one of my favourite authors ever since. Perhaps my favourite.
    I would also recommend The Telling, where she contemplates social attitudes to queerness. For non SF, Lavinia is also a really nice go of telling a story of a semi-/quasi-historical woman whose story is usually told only insofar as it touches on the stories of the men around her (and one, Aeneas, in particular).
    Thanks for the post, Mary 🙂
    (Also, 81 is a more interesting number than 80, so I think it’s an excellent idea to celebrate 81 rather than 80. Celebrating whole decades only is boring 😉 )

  4. Square birthdays are tops!

  5. yea happy 9 squared, i’d also recommend “those who walk away from Omelah” (not sure i got that right) also from “the wind’s twelve quarters”. also still relevant.
    also (gee i like that word today) special mention for her stance against the Vietnam war and how early it started, some of her memoirs from the early sixties just leave me speechless.
    oh and “the word for world is forest” has a great example of the sf invention of something that already existed.

  6. I adore Le Guin. I particularly like, in The Matter of Seggri, how technology and science are considered “women’s work”. Puts me in mind of the “Gender Binary Fractal” we’ve talked about a bit over on GeekFeminism.

  7. I love Ursula Le Guin! The Dispossessed is one of my favourite novels ever, but her short stories are amazing. I am a fan of Solitude, an examination of a society predicated upon extreme and near-universal introversion.

    Also she translated Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer, which is likewise a wonderful book.

  8. Oh, WordPress stripped out my italics on the title. Sadface.

  9. WordPress stripped out my italics on the title.

    Hoyden’s style sheet for some reason cancels out i and b tags: use em and strong. Good practice for HTML5. I have edited it to suit…

  10. But italics are appropriate for titles! I don’t need it emphasised; if someone were reading this using a screen reader it would sound funny.

  11. By which I mean, I should be able to style it as italics without having it semantically marked as emphasised. Sorry for bikeshedding, though, I’ll take my geekery back to work where it belongs.

    • Quick reply to Alice re italics styling: somebody buried that bit of tomfoolery deep in the core typography layout section of the CSS, not the simple-to-change style.css, and I haven’t had time yet since returning from holiday to dig down to exactly where that’s lurking. It’s on the to-do list.

  12. Thanks for the post, and happy 81st to Le Guin!
    I wish to wave a flag for her Left-Handed Commencement address, which is on her website here: but might be overlooked. It contains my most favourite paragraph ever:
    “Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything – instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if — only if — you want kids, I hope you have them. Not hordes of them. A couple, enough. I hope they’re beautiful. I hope you and they have enough to eat, and a place to be warm and clean in, and friends, and work you like doing. Well, is that what you went to college for? Is that all? What about success?”

  13. maharetr, I love that ^^ paragraph!
    I have been a huge fan of Ursula since I read The Dispossessed in 1978. Didn’t find Earthsea till several years later. Her writing has only gotten better over the years.
    Happy 81st Birthday!

  14. oh my goodness, I just read the whole address from the above link, it’s worth waving a whole heap of flags for!!

  15. Tigtog: Oh, no stress, I was just being a crankypants. I apologise for taking up space on the Ursula Le Guin thread of epic win for stupid HTML whinging.

  16. I am loving how everyone has a different Le Guin fave so far.

  17. Thank you for not only noticing but celebrating Ursula Le Guin’s birthday. She has been a reading companion, a philosophical role model and a creatrix of worlds-I-would-happily-live-in for most of my life.
    My favourite (and its a tough choice) is Always Coming Home – my copy of this and the one-volume Earthsea Trilogy that I bought about 30 years ago are the only books among the hundreds I own that have fallen apart inside their covers. I now have to take a curators type care when handling them, but I just havent brought myself to replace them yet – they are like frail but well-beloved old friends.
    I think one of the aspects of her writing that I have enjoyed is being witness to the evolution of her awakening to feminism and humanism – in the first books of Earthsea, men have the power, womens magic is definitely regarded as of lesser value, its all about Archmages and Kings and women are not even allowed through the door to Roke. The female lead Tenar is really only a backdrop for Ged’s journey to greatness.
    In her later Earthsea stories, both the short stories and the novels, she has made some conscious efforts to redress that imbalance, to rewrite the history of the world, to offer some explanations for the past (in particular I loved that she made women the focal point and the ‘movers and shakers’ for the creation of Roke), and ended by making room for women and ‘womens power’ to have an equal but different place at the table.
    Love yer work Ursula, would have loved to have been in the position for the occasional chat-over-coffee type thing, but alas your books will have to do – and happily they do still manage to.

  18. I am loving how everyone has a different Le Guin fave so far.

    Mine at present is Four Ways to Forgiveness, but I didn’t say in my first comment as my favourite changes as the years go on! Le Guin has been with me so much of my life and shaped so much of my life that my favourite changes as different parts of my experience come to the fore.

  19. I am so looking forward to finding a copy of Four Ways to Forgiveness: I read the fifth story in The Birthday of the World before finding the other four.

  20. My copy’s in storage at present, but if one of us remembers when I get it out, I would be happy to lend you mine.

  21. Love her. I think my favourite is The Left Hand of Darkness.

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