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Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin at an informal bookstore Q&A session, July 2004
Born(1929-10-21)October 21, 1929
Berkeley, California, United States
DiedJanuary 22, 2018(2018-01-22) (aged 88)
Portland, Oregon, United States
GenresScience fiction

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (pronounced /ˈɝsələ ˈkroʊbɚ ləˈgwɪn/) (October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018) was an American writer. She wrote books, poetry, children's books, essays, short stories, fantasy and science fiction.


Early life: California

Ishi in 1915

Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, on October 21, 1929. Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876–1960), was an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley.[1][2] Le Guin's mother, Theodora Kroeber (1897–1979; born Theodora Covel Kracaw), had a graduate degree in psychology. She started writing in her sixties and became a successful author. Her best known work was Ishi in Two Worlds (1961). This was a biography of Ishi, an indigenous American who was the last known member of the Yahi tribe.[1][3]

Ursula had three older brothers: Karl, Theodore, and Clifton.[4][5] The family had a large collection of books. Ursula and her brothers all liked to read when they were young.[4] Le Guin read science fiction and fantasy. She and her brothers often read issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. She liked myths and legends. She especially liked Norse mythology and Native American legends that her father would tell her.[4]

Many people visited the Kroeber family. Some of the visitors were well-known academics such as Robert Oppenheimer. Le Guin used Oppenheimer as the model for her lead character in The Dispossessed, a physicist named Shevek.[3][4] The family lived in a summer home in the Napa valley and a house in Berkeley during the school year.[3]


Berkeley High School

Le Guin studied at Berkeley High School. She graduated with another student who became a famous science fiction author, Philip K. Dick.[6] She received her Bachelor of Arts in Renaissance French and Italian literature from Radcliffe College in 1951. She was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.[7] Le Guin then studied at Columbia University, and earned a Master of Arts in French in 1952.[8] Soon after, she began a Ph.D. program. She won a Fulbright grant to continue her studies in France from 1953 to 1954.[3][8] Le Guin also received Fulbright grants to travel to London in 1968 and 1975.[3]


Aboard the RMS Queen Mary

In 1953, while traveling to France aboard the Queen Mary, Ursula met historian Charles Le Guin.[8] Charles was also a Fulbright Scholar. They got married in Paris in December 1953.[9] They returned to the United States in 1954.

Marriage and children

According to Le Guin, getting married meant she had to stop studying for her doctorate degree.[8] While her husband finished his doctorate at Emory University in Georgia, and later at the University of Idaho, Le Guin taught French and worked as a secretary until the birth of her daughter Elisabeth in 1957.[9] The couple had another daughter, Caroline, and a son, Theodore (born 1964).[8]

Return to the West Coast: Portland

In 1959 Charles became an instructor in history at Portland State University, and the couple moved to Portland, Oregon.[8] They would remain there for the rest of their lives.[10]

Writing life

She first wrote in the 1960s. She was awarded many Hugo and Nebula awards. Her agent was Virgina Kidd. [11]

She was given the Gandalf Award in 1979 and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award in 2003. She got eighteen Locus Awards, more than any other writer. Her book The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award for Children's Books in 1973.

Le Guin was the Professional Guest of Honor at the 1975 World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia. She got the Library of Congress Living Legends award in the "Writers and Artists" area in April 2000 for her additions to America's cultural history.[12] In 2004, Le Guin was the was given the Association for Library Service to Children's May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award.


Le Guin died on January 22, 2018, at her home in Portland. She was 88 years old. Her son said that she had been sick for several months. He said that she probably had a heart attack.[2] There was a private memorial service for her in Portland.[13] There was also a public memorial service in June 2018. At this service, many writers gave speeches, including: Margaret Atwood, Molly Gloss, and Walidah Imarisha[14][15]

Beliefs and values

Political Freedom

In 1975, Le Guin won a Nebula Award for her story "The Diary of the Rose." She did not accept the award. This was a protest against the Science Fiction Writers of America. The SFWA had recently canceled Stanisław Lem's membership in the group. Le Guin believed they kicked Lem out because he criticized American science fiction and chose to live in the Soviet Union, She said she could not take an award for a story about an unfree society from a writers' group that did not protect freedom.[16][17]


Le Guin said she was did not learn any religion and was not taught to be religious as a child. But, she became very interested in Taoism and Buddhism. She said that Taoism was a tool to help her understand her life as a teenager and young adult.[18] In 1997 she published a translation of the Tao Te Ching.[18][19]

Author's rights

In December 2009, Le Guin quit the Authors Guild. She did this to protest the Guild's agreement with the Google's book digitization project. "You decided to deal with the devil", she wrote in her letter when she quit. She wrote that they had given control over authors' rights and copyright to a company for nothing.[20][21] Le Guin made a speech at the 2014 National Book Awards. She explained that Amazon's control over the publishing industry was bad and dangerous. She was especially concerned about how Amazon blocked the Hachette Book Group from selling all books because the companies disagreed about how to sell ebooks. The speech was broadcast twice by National Public Radio. And, many other news organizations reported on it around the world.[22][23][24]

Responses to her work


Le Guin became popular and got good reviews quickly after publishing The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. She was very well-known among SF writers by the 1970s.[25][26] Readers bought millions of her books. And, her writing was translated into more than 40 languages. Some of her books stayed in print many decades after their first publication.[27][2][28] Academics studied her work carefully[29] and discussed it often.[30] Later in her career, mainstream literary critics wrote positively about her work. In an obituary, Jo Walton said that Le Guin "was so good that the mainstream couldn't dismiss SF any more".[31]

Le Guin earliest work stayed the most popular and got the most recognition.[32] A reviewer in 2018 said that she often lectured the reader in her later works.[2] John Clute, wrote in The Guardian, that she felt responsible for explaining important things clearly, and that this was difficult for her.[27] Some critics disliked some of her work. The Compass Rose had a mixed reaction. Even the critically well-received The Left Hand of Darkness was criticized by some feminists,[33].

Other authors liked her work. According to Zadie Smith, her prose was "as elegant and beautiful as any written in the twentieth century".[34] After Le Guin's death in 2018, writer Michael Chabon referred to her as the "greatest American writer of her generation", and said that she had "awed [him] with the power of an unfettered imagination".[34] Author Margaret Atwood praised Le Guin's "sane, smart, crafty and lyrical voice", and wrote that social injustice was a powerful motivation through Le Guin's life.[35] Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an "exquisite stylist", saying that in her writing, "Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance". According to Bloom, Le Guin was a "visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation".[34] Academic and author Joyce Carol Oates highlighted Le Guin's "outspoken sense of justice, decency, and common sense", and called her "one of the great American writers and a visionary artist whose work will long endure".[34] China Miéville described Le Guin as a "literary colossus", and wrote that she was a "writer of intense ethical seriousness and intelligence, of wit and fury, of radical politics, of subtlety, of freedom and yearning".[34]

Praise for Le Guin frequently focused on the social and political themes her work explored.[36] The New York Times described her as using "a lean but lyrical style" to explore issues of moral relevance.[2] Prefacing an interview in 2008, Vice magazine described Le Guin as having written "some of the more mind-warping sf and fantasy tales of the past 40 years".[37]

Awards and recognition

Le Guin won many annual awards for individual works. She was nominated for Hugo Awards twenty-four times and won seven times. She won six Nebula Awards from eighteen nominations. Four of her Nebula Awards were for Best Novel, more than any other writer.[38][39] Le Guin won twenty-two Locus Awards.[38][40] Her third Earthsea novel, The Farthest Shore, won the 1973 National Book Award for Young People's Literature,[41] She was a finalist for ten Mythopoeic Awards, nine in Fantasy and one for Scholarship.[38] Her 1996 collection Unlocking the Air and Other Stories was one of three finalists for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[42] Other awards won by Le Guin include three James Tiptree Jr. Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and three Jupiter Awards.[38] She won her final Hugo and Locus awards in the year of her death, for the essay collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, and an anthology of the Hainish cycle, respectively.[38]

Other awards were for Le Guin's contributions to speculative fiction. She was voted a Gandalf Grand Master Award by the World Science Fiction Society in 1979.[38] The Science Fiction Research Association gave her its Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her "lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship".[38] At the 1995 World Fantasy Convention she won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement.[38][43] She became a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2001.[44] The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America made her its 20th Grand Master in 2003. She was the second, and as of 2019, one of only six women to receive that honor.[45][46][47] In 2010, Le Guin was awarded the Lyman Tower Sargent Distinguished Scholar Award by the North American Society for Utopian Studies.[48] In 2013, she was given the Eaton Award by the University of California, Riverside, for lifetime achievement in science fiction.[38][49]

Later in her career Le Guin was also recognized her contributions to literature more generally. In April 2000 the U.S. Library of Congress made Le Guin a Living Legend in the "Writers and Artists" category for her significant contributions to America's cultural heritage.[50] The American Library Association granted her the annual Margaret Edwards Award in 2004, and also selected her to deliver the annual May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture.[51][52] The Edwards Award recognizes one writer and a particular body of work: the 2004 panel cited the first four Earthsea volumes, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Beginning Place. The panel said that Le Guin "has inspired four generations of young adults to read beautifully constructed language, visit fantasy worlds that inform them about their own lives, and think about their ideas that are neither easy nor inconsequential".[51] At its 2009 convention, the Freedom From Religion Foundation awarded the Emperor Has No Clothes Award to Le Guin.[53] A collection of Le Guin's works was published by the Library of America in 2016, an honor only rarely given to living writers.[54] The National Book Foundation awarded Le Guin its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, stating that she had "defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, and transcended boundaries between fantasy and realism to forge new paths for literary fiction".[55][56] The American Academy of Arts and Letters made her a member in 2017.[57]

Legacy and influence

Le Guin strongly influenced the field of speculative fiction. Jo Walton argued that Le Guin was important in both making the genre more open and accepting of new ideas, and in helping genre writers get mainstream success.[31] A Wizard of Earthsea introduced the idea of a "wizard school", which would later be made more famous by the Harry Potter series of books,[58] and with popularizing the trope of a boy wizard, also present in Harry Potter.[59]

Le Guin created the word "ansible" for an instantaneous interstellar communication device in 1966. Several other writers, including Orson Scott Card and Neil Gaiman, used the word later.[60] The notion that names can exert power is also present in Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 film Spirited Away; critics have suggested that that idea started with Le Guin's Earthsea series.[61]

Adaptations of her work

Le Guin's works have been adapted for radio,[62][63] as well as for film, television, and the stage.


Tales of Earthsea (Gedo Senki in Japanese) DVD title

Her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven has been adapted twice, in 1979 by WNET with Le Guin's participation, and the in 2002 by the A&E Network. In a 2008 interview, she said she thinks the 1979 adaptation is "the only good adaptation to film" of her work to date.[37] In the early 1980s Hayao Miyazaki asked to create an animated adaptation of Earthsea. Le Guin, who was unfamiliar with his work and anime in general, initially turned down the offer, but later accepted after seeing My Neighbor Totoro.[64] The third and fourth Earthsea books were used as the basis of Tales from Earthsea, released in 2006. The film was directed by Miyazaki's son, Gorō, not Hayao Miyazaki himself. Le Guin was disappointed by the change. Le Guin was positive about the look of the film, writing that "much of it was beautiful", but was critical of the moral sense of the film. She disliked the physical violence, especially the death of a villain as the film's resolution.[64] In 2004 the Sci Fi Channel adapted the first two books of the Earthsea trilogy as the miniseries Legend of Earthsea. Le Guin was highly critical of the adaptation, calling it a "far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned", objecting to the use of white actors for her red-, brown-, or black-skinned characters.[65]


Sign for The Left Hand of Darkness Play at University of Oregon, Eugene

Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness and novella Paradises Lost have both been adapted for theater. In 1995, Chicago's Lifeline Theatre presented its adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reviewer Jack Helbig at the Chicago Reader wrote that the "adaptation is intelligent and well crafted but ultimately unsatisfying", mainly because it is extremely difficult to compress a complex 300-page novel into a two-hour stage presentation.[66] She also said she was better pleased with stage adaptations, including Paradises Lost, than screen adaptations of her work till date.[67] In 2013, the Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre produced a stage adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness, directed and adapted by Jonathan Walters, with text adapted by John Schmor. The play opened May 2, 2013, and ran until June 16, 2013, in Portland, Oregon.[68]


Paradises Lost was adapted into an opera by the opera program of the University of Illinois.[69][67] The opera was composed by Stephen A. Taylor;[69] the libretto has been attributed both to Kate Gale[70] and to Marcia Johnson.[69] Adapted in 2005,[70] the opera premiered in April 2012.[71] Le Guin described the effort as a "beautiful opera" in an interview, and expressed hopes that it would be picked up by other producers.


Earthsea (fantasy)

The Earthsea novels

Hainish Cycle (science fiction)

Diagram of the World 4470 Solar System from the Hainish Cycle by Ursula K LeGuin

The Hainish Cycle novels

Miscellaneous novels and story cycles

The Catwings Collection



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  29. Tymn 1981, p. 363.
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