Le Guin’s Legacy

Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University. Creative Commons Licence.

I came late to Ursula K. Le Guin, who died yesterday at the age of 88.

I read the Earthsea books only a few years ago, as a fortysomething adult—too late, I think, to appreciate them properly. I read a lot of science fiction and a bit of fantasy growing up, but my reading was largely focused on the hoary classics and on hard sf, with an emphasis on Asimov and Niven (which did not help my development as a writer). I made up for lost time later; by the time I was in university I was in the midst of a serious contemporary sf reading binge. For a while, thanks to my father’s Asimov’s subscription, my own Locus subscription, and the surprisingly good sf holdings of the Winnipeg Public Library, I was as up to speed on the science fiction of the late 1980s and the 1990s as it was possible for anyone to be. (Then came graduate school, and it was no longer possible to keep up.)

But in the process I had missed out on a lot of stuff from the late 1960s and the 1970s. Tiptree I’d read, and Varley and Wolfe; but not Delany, or Zelazny—or Le Guin. What had happened was that I’d skipped over a generation, jumping from the Golden Age to the Postmoderns, from Asimov and Pohl to Kelly, Kress, Robinson, Swanwick and Willis. From the classic to the right now. There was a gap in my reading. Except for a few short stories, I’d missed out on Le Guin.

Or so I thought.

Some of my favourite science fiction novels from the 1990s were set on other worlds and had an anthropological bent. Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child.

You can see where this is going, can’t you.

Earlier this month I finally got around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s fourth novel and the one the won all the awards. It was a revelation. Not because of how powerfully good it is (though it is), not because, as a work of anthropological sf, this kind of thing was very much my bag (though it is), but because I immediately clued in to its influence.

All those anthropological sf books I’d enjoyed reading, decades ago? The line between them and The Left Hand of Darkness could not be more clear.

Those of you familiar with Le Guin will by now be saying, well, duh. This is not exactly unknown. But hear me out. I came to Le Guin late, and backwards; it’s an odd, uncanny thing to read the works that were inspired before the work that originally did the inspiring. I had managed to encounter The Left Hand of Darkness’s impact before I had read the book itself—to reverse-engineer the book’s importance from what had followed in her wake.

This is, of course, only a small part of Le Guin’s legacy. Others who knew her better or read her sooner will speak to other parts far better than I ever could. But it’s what I noticed when I belatedly finished one of her most important books, eight days before she died.