Ursula Le Guin: Her best books, feminist ideas and lasting legacy

Ursula Le Guin, the trailblazing science fiction and fantasy writer who was known for her feminist themes, has died at 88 at her home in Portland, Oregon.

Her son Theo Downes-Le Guin announced the news on Tuesday, and said: “She left an extraordinary legacy as an artist and as an advocate of peace and critical thinking and fairness, and she was a great mother and wife as well.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the giant in literature, who was best known for her Earthsea series.

What was her background?

Ursula was born in Berkeley, California in 1929, and wrote from an early age – she suffered her first disappointment at age 11 when a piece she wrote was rejected by the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories.

“During the Second World War, my brothers all went into service and the summers in the Valley became lonely ones, just me and my parents in the old house,” she told sci fi fiction website sfsite.com.

“There was no TV then; we turned on the radio once a day to get the war news. Those summers of solitude and silence, a teenager wandering the hills on my own, no company, ‘nothing to do,’ were very important to me. I think I started making my soul then,” she said.

She married Charles Le Guin in Paris in 1953, before the couple moved to Portland, where they had three children.

What are her books like?

Ursula’s first novel Rocannon’s World, published in 1966, told of a world shared by three humanoid races conquered by a fleet of ships from the stars.

Three years later she really found fame with The Left Hand Of Darkness, which imagines a future society where people are ambisexual – they have no fixed sex. It explores the effects of gender and sex in society, and was one of the first major feminist science fiction books.

“I eliminated gender to find out what was left,” she told The Guardian.

Her Earthsea series, which follows the adventures of the wizard Ged and is preoccupied with the battle between good and evil, is arguably her most recognisable and best-loved work.

What themes and ideas did she explore?

Ursula covered everything from Taoism, feminism and anarchy, to psychology and sociology.

She won an honorary National Book Award in 2014 and warned in her acceptance speech against letting profit define what is considered good literature, and was wary of the commercialisation of art.

In her speech she also spoke out about the need for science fiction and fantasy. She said: “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of meaning and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”

Like many fantasy writers, she was preoccupied with ideas around the balance between good and evil and the evolution of technology. However, the feminist angle she often took set her writings apart – and in an overwhelmingly white genre full of white characters, she often challenged traditional ideas of race.

What will she be remembered for?

Ursula was the driving force in feminist science fiction, and a trailblazer in a world traditionally reserved for men. She carved out such a distinctive voice that critic Harold Bloom placed her in the pantheon of fantasy writers alongside J.R.R. Tolkien, while the Earthsea series is oft considered a precursor to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, as it tells of a boy-wizard in a quest against evil.

She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 – a rare achievement for a sci-fi writer.

Ursula was inspiring in her subversive and original writing, and also for the themes of feminism and freedom she held so dearly. In a 1983 address at Mills College in California, she told graduates: “Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms? … I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated.”

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