Jan 23, 2018

Farewell, Ursula K. Leguin. . .

One of the greats among science fiction and fantasy writers - Ursula K. Leguin - died yesterday, aged 88.  Her works of excellence are too numerous to enumerate in a short piece, and it would be extremely difficult even to decide which among her many novels or stories deserve to be ranked within a top five or ten - that's how consistently good her writing, and the thought poured into it, has been over half a century.

If you haven't read LeGuin, now would be an opportune time to do so.  If you are interested in her own reflections upon the craft of writing, you might start with her essay, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie".  If you want a well-crafted moral dilemma, read "Those Who Walk Away From Omelas" (which you can find in the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters).  If you'd like to dive right into one of her novels, I would probably suggest The Lathe of Heaven, The Word for World Is Forest, or The Left Hand of Darkness.  Alternately, if you have an interest in Chinese philosophy or in anarchist ideas, you might check out her translation of the classic Tao Te Ching.

I first encountered her books early on in middle school. I was already into reading science fiction and fantasy literature (and devouring what works on mythology I could find).  Her Earthsea trilogy - A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore - were the first works I read, and I found them captivating.  A world of water, islands, magic, true names, and dragons - and the coming-of-age story of the young, lone mage Ged - those elements drew me along the threads of the story.  But there was more, a depth of feeling, emotion, affect depicted  - with a hand both light and weighty - in LeGuin's writings.  Ged becomes who he is - and comes to know the world and to find his own place in it not just through what he does or suffers, but through how he chooses, and what he feels and then learns, often through sacrifices, his own and others.

The next book I read - one I have not gone back to since I was young - was The Beginning Place.  That story - of two young people finding their way in a hostile world, to a threshold of another world, and ultimately into trust, tenderness, and love - made such an impression upon me that I still remember the place and the posture where I read it.  Recalling the story reawakens the same feelings that the story guided me through - loss, sadness, loneliness, eagerness, fear, and joy.  I would say that for me, that novel gave me a sense - a realistic one, by contrast to so much other fantasy - of what a growing love might look like between two partners.  I talked about that experience of reading and being affected by her work a bit in the Worlds of Speculative Fiction talk devoted to her books.

I suspect that millions of readers will in some manner or another remember and grieve for the late Ursula K. Leguin.  And that is particularly fitting, given how many times she depicted characters - each narrated in their own way - coming to terms with the loss of those they love or admire (as well as those who they are thrown together with, or find themselves rivals to, or even hate).  Death, loss, grieving.  These are matters she knew, and wrote into her worlds and characters in ways that - here I speak only for myself - communicate a sort of wisdom, helping the rest of us make sense out of these matters.  For that, towards this great writer I never met, I bear a deep debt of gratitude.  And I mourn her loss as I would any of my loved ones.