Biography Ursula K. Le Guin

Pioneer of Feminist Science Fiction

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edited and with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

Ursula K. Le Guin was an American novelist best known for her science fiction and fantasy works, which grew in popularity in the 1960s. She wrote a wide array of essays, children's books, and young adult fiction.

For most of her career, Le Guin managed to resist pigeonholing. As her brother has pointed out, applying the label of "science fiction" to Le Guin's work doesn't convey the range of her stories or her literary sources. A more accurate description for Le Guin would be "fantasist" or "story-teller".

The work of Ursula K. Le Guin is distinguishable not only by its careful craftsmanship and realistic detail of imaginary worlds, but also from its profound ethical concerns. Through her writing, Le Guin explored themes of feminism, the role of gender in sexism, and environmental concerns. She championed the humanizing power of imagination and believes that fantasy can be a moral compass for both adults and children.

Ursula Le Guin Biography

Growing up, Le Guin was surrounded by scholarly and humanistic pursuits. Her mother described their home as a "gathering place for scientists, students, writers and California Indians". It was in this environment that Le Guin began to write. She never made the conscious decision to be a writer, because she never expected not to share stories. Le Guin often claimed that her parents' careers in anthropology had a great influence on her writing.

Ursula K. Le Guin received a B.A. from Radcliffe in 1951 and an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature from Columbia in 1952. When she went to France on a Fulbright in 1953, she met and married her husband, historian Charles A. Le Guin. Le Guin turned from graduate studies to raise a family and they moved to Portland, Oregon.

Turning to Science Fiction:

In the early 1960s, Le Guin had published a few things, but had written much more that was not yet published. She turned to science fiction in order to get published. In doing so, she became one of the most critically acclaimed science fiction writers.

Ursula K. Le Guin went on to become known as one of the early feminist voices in fantasy and science fiction. She was one of the very few writers that has been able to break through the academic disdain for "low art" (a term used to describe genre work). Le Guin's work has been collected more frequently in literary anthologies than that of any other science-fiction author. Le Guin believed that imagination, not profit, should drive artistic creation and expression. She was a vocal advocate for genre work, finding the distinction between high and low art to be incredibly problematic.

Her work is often concerned with individual freedom. In her fictitious worlds, there is a limitless range of choices, but none are without results. To ignore this fact is to be not human. Therefore, in Le Guin's story, any self-aware being is a human, regardless of its species.

One of Ursula Le Guin's most well-known series, the Hainish series, was the setting for two of her earliest novels. These two novels were awarded the Hugo and Nebula award, an unprecedented double honor. While Hainish tends to be more science fiction, Le Guin's Earthsea is a fantasy series. It has often been compared to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Le Guin preferred the Tolkien comparison: Tolkien's open-ended mythology is much more to her taste than Lewis's religious works (Le Guin prefers to let allegory alone).

Ursula K. Le Guin won more Locus awards than any other writer, 20 in total. For Le Guin, the most important thing about writing is the story and she struggled against anything that could be construed as propaganda. Her science fiction and fantasy is part of her alliance with formal intellectual pursuits. Her work reflects a deep interest of the field of anthropology, reflected in the amount of care she puts into creating other cultures as well as other worlds. Her work continues to offer an alternative to the capitalistic, male-centered ideals of the West that rule most genre fiction of today. Her own work is filled with a desire for balance and unity in society, reflected in the ideals of Taoism, Jungian psychology, ecology, and human liberation.

In one of her most interesting novels, one that has frequently been critiqued by feminist critics, The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin presents the reader with a thought experiment by introducing a world inhabited by an androgynous race of beings (the Gethins). In a later essay written about this novel, Is Gender Necessary Redux, Le Guin makes a few observations: First, the absence of war. Second, the absence of exploitation. Third: the absence of sexuality. While she came to no definitive conclusions, the novel remains an interesting examination of the interplay of sex, gender, and sexism.

To read Ursula K. Le Guin is to examine our place in the world. By elevating low genre to an academic pursuit, Le Guin has opened the doors for other women writers that wish to examine contemporary issues using the tools of genre. 

Selected Ursula LeGuin Quotations

• We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.

• The misogyny that shapes every aspect of our civilization is the institutionalized form of male fear and hatred of what they have denied and therefore cannot know, cannot share: that wild country, the being of women.

• The power of the harasser, the abuser, the rapist depends above all on the silence of women.

• There are no right answers to wrong questions.

• It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.

• The greatest religious problem today is how to be both a mystic and a militant; in other words how to combine the search for an expansion of inner awareness with effective social action, and how to feel one's true identity in both.

• The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerant uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.

• I certainly wasn't happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognize at the time; I mean joy.

• Reason is a faculty far larger than mere objective force.  When either the political or the scientific discourse announces itself as the voice of reason, it is playing God, and should be spanked and stood in the corner.

• If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives.... But close up a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern.

• Love doesn't just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.

• What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?

• Morning comes whether you set the alarm or not.

• To light a candle is to cast a shadow.

• The creative adult is the child who has survived.

• My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.

• It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.

• Success is somebody else's failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty.

Fast Facts

Dates: October 21, 1929 - January 22, 2018
Also known as: Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
Parents: Theodora Kroeber (a writer) and Alfred Louis Kroeber (pioneering anthropologist)

Sources: Works Cited

  • Attebery, Brian. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Twentieth-Century American Science-Fiction Writers. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1981. 263-280. Print.
  • Gordon, Andrew. "Ursula K. Le Guin." American Writers for Children Since 1960. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1986. 233-241. Print.
  • Petersen, Zina. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Twentieth-Century American Western Writers. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. 140-149. Print.
  • Samuelson, David N., and Elizabeth Cummins. "Ursula K. Le Guin." Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present day. 2nd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons :, 1999. 421-436. Print.

For more information

  • Ursula Le Guin's personal website:
  • Interview: Shoot, Brittany. "Steering the Craft: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin." Bitch Fall 2010: 32-35. Print.