Ursula Le Guin dies

I have only just got back from a week-long holiday with no access to the internet (more on that in a subsequent post), so I have only now heard of Ursula Le Guin’s death.


We have lost a monumental figure within the genre – to the extent that she’d be one of my choices for a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of science-fiction. Le Guin was significant not just because of her own output, but also because, more than nearly any other modern commentator on speculative fiction, she sought to give the field intellectual legitimacy. Her 1974 essay Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? represents an elaboration on C.S. Lewis’ old idea that some people are a little too obsessed with being grown up – but it does more than that. It is an invocation of fantasy as a counter-culture, a surviving celebration of the imagination in an age of sterile realism.

Fantasy is far more mainstream in 2018 than 1974, but I think there are still lessons to be learned here. Especially by those obsessed with praising allegedly realistic fantasy, a la Game of Thrones, as though realism in itself is a virtue (George R.R. Martin himself is not a realist, of course – I am talking about some of his more wrongheaded followers). Fantasy, by definition, is a genre of the imagination, and if Le Guin’s essay is a bit out of date, it is only because the money men have moved on from being afraid of dragons to trying to tame them for circuses.

Le Guin’s work also strikes at the heart of the (alas, still widely held) notion that speculative fiction is not “literary”, that it is mere escapism with no relevance to the human condition. The Left Hand of Darkness, a thought experiment of variable sex and gender roles, truly puts pay to that, and in an age when transgender issues are becoming ever-more prominent, it is clear that Le Guin’s novel ought to be considered a literary work ahead of its time. Just because something is science-fiction does not mean it has nothing to say – and what short-sighted academic snobbery misses can still resonate with the unwashed masses.

In a perfect world, Le Guin ought to have got the Nobel Prize for Literature – but we don’t live in a perfect world. We can still fall back on imagination though.


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