Ursula K. Le Guin, one of science-fiction and fantasy’s greatest authors, has died at the age of 88. Her family announced in a tweet on Tuesday that the author died peacefully at her Portland, Oregon home on Monday afternoon.
Le Guin wrote dozens of novels and short stories, most of which have been classified as fantasy or science-fiction, despite Le Guin’s famous protests against such distinctions in literature. Those designations perhaps seem silly now, in the age of blockbuster superhero movies and mainstream acceptance of genre TV shows like Game of Thrones, but that breakdown is due in no small part to Le Guin’s influence. In works like The Left Hand of Darkness, she turned classic science-fiction tropes on their heads, using imaginary worlds to explore issues of politics, sexuality, and feminism.
Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California, the daughter of anthropologists who instilled within her an endless fascination for other people and cultures. It’s a recurring theme in her work, and her best-known book, The Left Hand of Darkness, ends on this note; protagonist Genly Ai, who has come to the icy planet Winter from across the stars, makes a final journey to the family home of a deceased friend, to bring news of their son’s death. He expects to be treated with suspicion but instead receives only curiosity and empathy: “Will you tell us how he died? Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars — the other kinds of men, the other lives?”
Le Guin was prolific; her bibliography includes more than 22 novels, 7 books of poetry, 11 volumes of short stories, 4 collections of essays, 12 books for children, and 4 volumes of translation written over 40 years. She also wrote regularly in a blog in her later years; much of that writing was recently collected in No Time To Spare — her last published work. Le Guin proved as adept at realistic stories (many set in her fictional Eastern European country of Orsinia) as she was at the fantastic, but science-fiction allowed her to experiment with preconceived notions about gender and society—most notably in the genderless planet of The Left Hand of Darkness, but also in the reality-bending dreams of The Lathe of Heaven and the anarchist utopia of The Dispossessed. “Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality,” she once wrote in a scathing blog post about Kazuo Ishiguro’s refusal to describe his novel The Buried Giant as “fantasy.”
Together with contemporaries like Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany, Le Guin demonstrated that literate, moving stories could be told within the confines of genre, an important lesson for modern best-selling writers like Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell, who hailed her work. Other writers like N.K. Jemisin have furthered Le Guin’s use of sci-fi and fantasy to interrogate real-world political and social themes. Plus, the boom in young adult novels about magic and wizards is unimaginable without her Earthsea cycle; thirty years before Harry Potter showed up for his first year at Hogwarts, Le Guin sent the young novice Ged Sparrowhawk to learn magic from wiser wizards at the island of Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea (in 2013, EW named her Earthsea series our pick for “best YA novel(s) of all time”).
Le Guin always emphasized that her focus was on story over politics, but her ideas have held tremendous influence. She famously stood up to Google Books and corporate control of publishing, and when Occupy protesters took to the streets of Oakland in 2012, some came armed with shields in the shape of her novel The Dispossessed.
Death and the nature of mortality are frequently explored in Le Guin’s work. In her third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, the world falls into ruin when an evil wizard uses magic to make himself immortal — throwing out the delicate balance of life and death in the process. As natural cycles fall into decay, Ged Sparrowhawk (now older and wiser, no longer an arrogant novice but the Archmage of all Earthsea) confronts his foe in the land of the dead and admonishes him about his misunderstanding of life and death:
“Do you not understand? Did you never understand, you who called up so many shadows from the dead, who summoned all the hosts of the perished, even my lord Erreth-Akbe, wisest of us all? Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a name? His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there — there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle’s flight. He is alive. And all who ever died, live; they are reborn and have no end, nor will there ever be an end.”