The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

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