Ursula K. Le Guin – October 21, 1929-January 22, 2018 – In Memoriam
By David R. Weiss, January 23, 2018
I’ve not even come close to reading everything by Ursula K. Le Guin, but as a teenager she almost single-handedly reshaped my way of looking at the world. So I owe her a word of thanks upon hearing that she died yesterday.
It’s easy to think of science-fiction/fantasy literature as escapist (and some of it certainly is), but for Le Guin those genres were lenses through which to look outward and far away precisely to deepen our capacity to look inward and up close.
Perhaps best known for the Earthsea Trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness, she wrote several dozen novels and many more short stories and essays, ranging across genres and audiences with ease. Le Guin is praised for interrogating the future—more aptly put, the possible—through a wide variety of evocative questions informed by her interests in feminism, sociology, psychology, anthropology, environmentalism, gender, sexuality, pacifism, and anarchism among others.
Sharply critical of most religion, Le Guin identified as Taoist, although not in a religious sense per se; she regarded it as the most truthful/insightful philosophical vantage point for life. Perhaps subconsciously she sowed in me the seeds that have led me to be so self-critical of my religious affiliations. But more than this, she invited me to think and feel the questions of human existence with uncanny clarity.
These are the handful of genuine treasures that I credit to her.
The Word for World is Forest (1972) was my introduction to Le Guin. From this otherworldly parable I discovered the apocalyptic (both world-shattering and revelatory) power of words. If your word for world is forest, what does it mean to see the forest logged to ruin? How would you react? More to the point, how would I? Additionally, I learned about the too often exploitive clash between cultures with different values and different ways of holding and exercising power. I encountered whole different ways of knowing reality. And I met the earthling-environmentalist waiting to be born inside myself.
In Rocannon’s World (1966) I came to know the full weight of radical empathy. Already intuitively (and perhaps ungainly) empathetic as a teen, this novella beckoned me to embrace it as gift . . . while also warning me of the cost. I do not recall the details of the story, but the lesson about empathy chases me to this day. Rocannon’s World was, for me, a powerful introduction to one profound facet of my vocational identity . . . and an alluring caveat about the cost of discipleship.
Finally, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975), a collection of short stories, I encountered a number of themes that still haunt me with insight. “April in Paris” is a meditation on the near-magical alchemy of loneliness. Not in a way that sparks pity, but one that evokes awe. “The Darkness Box” is about the value of courageous choices even—maybe precisely—in the face of uncertainty and irrevocable consequences. “The Stars Below” intimates that beauty might lie where we least think. “The Direction of the Road,” a disorienting tale about a car crash and a tree, asked me to trade places and perspectives in an utterly unexpected manner—to enter a viewpoint wholly other and see the world from there. And (the most famous of the bunch) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” condemned me ever after (and gratefully so) to meet social conditions with a hermeneutic of suspicion (although I surely never learned the name for this until seminary) . . . and a commitment to walk away from every unjust “normal” myself.
At sixteen I was mostly a mess. Of vocational confusion, hormonal overdrive, and social shyness. Largely (not entirely) disconnected from my peers, and keenly aware of a world—both beyond me and inside me—that was frightfully vivid and chaotic. No writer gave me better tools to plumb the depths of both worlds than Ursula K. Le Guin. By many measures (at least those that use dogma or moralism), I’m a pretty marginal Christian. But thanks to the ways this Taoist-atheist science fiction author tutored my mind and heart, I am at the very least a Christian better able to exercise empathy and place it in the service of compassion.
I end with the closing lines of The Word for World is Forest. The character speaking in the book is Selver, but Le Guin wrote them and they are true of her: “Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.” Me neither. And for that, I give thanks.
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