Ursula Le Guin

On Nov. 19 2014, at the annual National Book Awards gala, Neil Gaiman presented the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Lots of media commentators have been talking about this, and I don’t want to repeat what others are saying, but because Ursula K Le Guin is my favourite author of all time, because she is at the top of my bucket list of people whose feet I’d like to kiss before I die, I’m going to talk about why I love her so much. I’m going to tell you about my three favourite U K Le Guin novels.

Now, in doing this I’m going to leave out the entire Earthsea oeuvre. This is because I began to read these books in childhood, and although I adore them, and Tenar’s story in The Tombs of Atuan is my favourite Earthsea book, I can’t really count it in the big list, because I’m completely unable to be objective about them. If you have children aged around the 11-12 mark or a little older and they are interested in fantasy, you can’t give them a better world view than that of Sparrowhawk and his milieu. If you want them to know about balance, and taking responsibility for the world they live in, and give them the magic of everyday things as well as the true magic of wizards – these are the books you need.

Number 3 in my list is Always Coming Home. I purchased this brand new on release with no idea what it was actually about. I became so enamoured of it that I bought it for a number of my friends, and donated a copy to a local library, just so I could spread the word. It’s not quite like anything else I can think of. Le Guin herself called it ‘An archaeology of the future,’ and that’s as good a description as any. The world of Always Coming Home is no utopia, although it has been described as such. It’s set in a future time in which the environmental wealth of the planet has been almost exhausted, and people make compromises with their surroundings that we civilized moderns would never accept. There’s a thread of story running through, the way a thin trickle of a river will run through a dry valley, meandering through the dust. And surrounding it are a wealth of stories, poems, songs, glimpses, analyses – all the bits and pieces of a literate society, gathered together, for us, the archaeologists, to pore over and ponder. I read it again and again, and always get something new from it.

Number 2 in my all-time list is The Left Hand of Darkness, I came to this book late. In my teens I could never finish it – it was just too hard, too dry. I was interested in the gender identities of the Gethenians, or rather the non-gender identities – in adolescence I was beginning to see that human life is defined by issues of gender and sexuality, even in arenas where one would expect it to be irrelevant, and so the gendering issue in The Left Hand of Darkness made me think. But I couldn’t handle the politics. I came back to it in my late 30s, with a bit more life behind me, and loved it. It is a book about politics, and it’s a book that makes its reader work hard. One of my top 10 books of all time. Well worth reading.

Number 1: The Telling. This is a deceptively simple book. Set in the Hainish universe, it is one of a number of Le Guin’s novels that treat with the topic of the alien visitor – oh-so-human Sutty finds herself on a planet where everything seems very human and familiar, but things are not as they appear. The society that she discovers is fragile and wounded, and its scars mirror Sutty’s own emotional pain. Above all, this is a novel about writing and history, and about the stories we tell that make us who we are, and it reminds us that if we forget to tell the stories of our own culture, it will diminish and narrow and fail. There’s something about The Telling that speaks to me on a very personal level, but it’s also a great story told well, and if its climax doesn’t move you to tears then there is no hope for you. Let the cold airs of Mount Silong blow through you and tell your story on the wind.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pamkirst2014
    Nov 20, 2014 @ 22:07:22

    I was traveling today and listening to snippets of LeGuin’s acceptance speech on public radio–she was great!!! Beside reading the Earthsea trilogy, I used Left hand of Darkness in my master’s thesis,and she has an essay about Adam and Eve that I just love (Eve takes back all the animals’ names and gives them to humans…turkey, ass, etc…) It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I agree–she’s tremendous.


    • yvonnemarjot
      Nov 21, 2014 @ 21:10:15

      My ultimate fantasy is that one day I meet her and she says ‘I read your book. I liked it.’ I would die and go to heaven on the spot!


      • pamkirst2014
        Nov 21, 2014 @ 21:42:32

        I can easily see that happening…just not the part about you going immediately to heaven!!! Have you thought about writing her?

      • yvonnemarjot
        Nov 22, 2014 @ 20:00:37

        I did write thanking her, after I bought her book about the Tao, and realised how much it influenced her writing of the Earthsea books (and others) and thus influenced me as I was growing up, even though I didn’t think I’d ever studied the Tao. Turned out I had, and didn’t know it! I did tell her I’m a writer, but I also said I didn’t expect a reply. I just wanted her to know how much I appreciated her work.

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