This week the author Ursula Le Guin passed away at the age of 88. As one of my favourite authors from a very young age, I wanted to write a tribute to her work, and how it has impacted me over the years.
Unlike many fans, my first encounter was not with the Earthsea trilogy, but with her collection of short stories “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”. I remember feeling like I had never read anything quite like these stories before. They were a completely different style from, for example, Tolkien (another early favourite of mine). I couldn’t get enough.
“Rocannon’s World”, “A Wizard of Earthsea”, “The Dispossessed”, “The Lathe of Heaven”, and so on later, I have continued to be an avid fan. She was a masterful world-builder, and I always felt totally immersed in the stories I was reading. She wove philosophical concepts and social comment in to her work in a way that was not heavy-handed or tiresome.
One example of this would be the short story “The Ones who walk away from Omelas” – the metaphor is perhaps overt, but it is still a beautifully written and poignant piece of work. As it was in “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters” it was one of the first stories I read, and it has stuck in my mind to this day as one of my favourites. It points out that peace and prosperity are often bought on the back of someone else’s suffering, and asks the question whether the ends really justify the means. “Four ways to forgiveness”, a set of four stories woven together, talks about slavery from four different angles. For anyone who is concerned about modern slavery I strongly recommend this book. “Changing Planes” is another set of stories under an overarching story arc, and it is beautifully satirical, using it’s setting of worlds on different planes to comment on so many different aspects of society.
She was brilliant in the way she would present the main point of a story, often in ways the reader would not expect. One of my favourite examples of this is in “The Lathe of Heaven”. As a reader it is not expected for the central truth of a story to come from the mouth of the villain. However it is from the antagonist that we learn that all the tests he ran on the hero put him in the exact middle of the scale on absolutely everything. The villain reveals this in a sneering way – he is calling the protagonist average, ordinary and therefore unimportant. What he is actually telling the reader, however, is that the hero is the centre of things, the axis of existence. This is such a small moment that it is easy to miss. I didn’t pick it up until the third read. When you find it, the whole story takes on an extra dimension that is quite awesome.
Ursula Le Guin has left an enduring legacy of brilliant work, one which will be enjoyed by generations to come. I am planning on starting on a re-reading program, to encounter once again her astonishing brilliance.