Beyond the books: Ursula K. Le Guin’s many tentacles

Gautham Shenoy January 27, 2018 11 min

It would take someone to have been completely off the grid not to have heard about the death of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. From the time the sad news broke, the internet has seen an avalanche of emotion and mourning, awash in a tsunami of grief, reminiscences, personal memories, tributes, and obituaries from readers and writers from across the world, and not just from the SF/F world. Not surprising, for a lady who many – including self – believe deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Almost every one of the media outlets, papers and blogs however made more or less the same error by describing her as a ‘fantasy author’ or as a ‘writer of science fiction’. She’d have hated that. “Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions!” she’d famously said once.

Le Guin was first and foremost a writer, who just happened to write science fiction novels that are now classics; an author who penned immortal fantasy stories and a subversive novelist who upended established orders. She was also a poet, an essayist, a cat lover who wrote children’s picture books about kittens with wings, a trailblazing feminist, a teacher, a mentor, a role model, and many other good and great things. It seems there is hardly a reader who she didn’t touch through her life, and her books that spoke to many, and spoke many truths.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018). Rest In Peace. Image: Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

Ursula K. Le Guin was perhaps the first successful author to prove consistently, once and for all to the world that the ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ could be the ‘soft’ sciences, the humanities; in her case, most notably anthropology. The first woman to win the Hugo for Best Novel for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, as also the first woman to win it twice, with The Dispossessed in 1975. Both these books also won the Nebula Award. When Locus Magazine announced its lists for The Best 20th Century Science Fiction Novels and Best 20th Century Fantasy Novels, there was only one writer whose books featured in the Top 5 of both – Ursula K. Le Guin, with The Left Hand of Darkness, and A Wizard of Earthsea, respectively. One of the few women to be made a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, she was also awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. But her greatest contribution to the world has to be the way in which she broadened the minds of countless readers, paved the path for so many to follow in, and influenced not a few of today’s most popular authors. No wonder then, that everyone from Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Adam Roberts, to N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Elizabeth Bear paid tribute to her in their own way. Tor has collected many of them in a single place, including some longer personal tributes, and obituaries, which you can read here. The most touching of them – and one that underlined her contributions to the genre and her impact on our literary world – came from Jo Walton, ‘Bright the Hawk’s Flight on the Empty Sky’, and what a tribute it is. Do read that and for a well-written long read and insightful glimpse into her multifaceted life – that traces her early days, how the literary mainstream relegated her work to the margins, and how she then transformed the mainstream – this piece from the New Yorker, about The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin.

So, what else can we look at, beyond her books, and all the quotable quotes, to get an even better sense of who she was and what she did other than write beautiful classics? Here then, are just a few instances, and anecdotes, of when Ursula K. Le Guin was, well, Ursula K. Le Guin.

When U. K. Le Guin ‘tricked’ Playboy magazine and bought a red Volkswagen bus

“In the late sixties” – Le Guin recalled in a piece she wrote for New Yorker – “Robie Macauley, the fiction editor of Playboy—Entertainment for Men—was publishing stories of literary interest. My agent, Virginia Kidd, who couldn’t be kept in a ghetto of any kind, sent him one of mine. It was pure science fiction, and all the important characters in it were men. Virginia submitted it under the discreet byline of U. K. Le Guin. When it was accepted, she revealed the horrid truth. Playboy staggered back, then rallied gamely. The editors said that they’d still like to publish “Nine Lives,” Virginia told me, but that their readers would be frightened if they saw a female byline on a story, so they asked if they could use the initials, instead of my first name. Unwilling to terrify these vulnerable people, I told Virginia to tell them sure, that’s fine. Playboy thanked us with touching gratitude. Then, after a couple of weeks, they asked for an author biography…

…We’d tricked them slightly, though, and I didn’t want to continue the trickery. But what could I say? “He is a housewife and the mother of three children”? I wrote, “It is commonly suspected that the writings of U. K. Le Guin are not actually written by U. K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.” Game to the last, Playboy printed that. And my husband and I bought a red VW bus, cash down, with the check.”

The story in question, ‘Nine Lives’ is amongst the few “hard” sci-fi stories that Le Guin wrote and is considered one of the finest stories ever written on human cloning. It ended up getting her, and Playboy magazine, a Nebula award nomination in 1969.

When she refused to blurb an all-male science fiction anthology (and how?!)

In 1987, Harcourt publishers reached out to Le Guin for a blurb to feature on the first volume in a series of anthologies that was to feature SF stories from such authors as Brian Aldiss, Gregory Benford, Rudy Rucker and others. Little did they realise, that where they saw a good anthology, Le Guin saw a complete lack of women contributors, and replied thusly to the publisher in a short, biting letter, which you can see over at

Letters of Note:

I can imagine myself blurbing a book in which Brian Aldiss, predictably, sneers at my work, because then I could preen myself on my magnanimity. But I cannot imagine myself blurbing a book, the first of the series, which not only contains no writing by women, but the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room. That would not be magnanimity, but foolishness. Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.

Yours truly, 
Ursula K. Le Guin

Left: The letter that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote to Harcourt refusing to bulb an all-male sci-fi anthology. Right: Le Guin receiving from Neil Gaiman the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards 2014

When she resigned from the Authors Guild for their ‘deal with the devil’

In 2002, Google began digitizing books under the codename Project Ocean, which in 2004 became what we know it today as, Google Books. In 2005, the Authors Guild – America’s oldest and largest professional organisation for writers – filed a class action lawsuit against Google because of what they saw as “massive copyright infringement”. The Authors Guild would soon, however, reach a settlement with Google, without consultation from many of the authors who were its members. A miffed Le Guin promptly resigned from the guild, saying – in her letter of resignation

“…now you have sold us down the river. I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.”

Le Guin would soon write a petition in 2010, which would be signed by over 300 authors, against the settlement. She wasn’t against making information and knowledge free to those that seek it, but objected to the way in which it was done, with a large corporation using its influence (and money) to trample over the rights of a creator.

As she wrote in her Petition Letter to the Judge of the Google Book Settlement, “The free and open dissemination of information and of literature, as it exists in our Public Libraries, can and should exist in the electronic media. All authors hope for that. But we cannot have free and open dissemination of information and literature unless the use of written material continues to be controlled by those who write it or own legitimate right in it. We urge our government and our courts to allow no corporation to circumvent copyright law or dictate the terms of that control”.

The settlement meanwhile would be rejected by the courts, and a lawsuit brought about by the guild was dismissed, with the ruling favouring Google. The Authors Guild appealed, but again, the previous judgement would be affirmed, in the favour of Google. In response to that, Le Guin would – in 2015 – write a letter, addressed To All Writers, especially those that signed the petition earlier, “Copyright is the writer’s Declaration of Independence. If we don’t understand the principle it embodies and defend our interest in it, corporate imperialism and government apathy will continue to defy and destroy it.

‘I’m too old to take up this cause again. I can only plead: Surely there are some writers out there under 80 able and willing to get together….to workout and work for a strategy for the Defense of Copyright?”

When she spoke up against Amazon and its BS machine

In 2014, while giving her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards after receiving – from one of her biggest fans and admirers, Neil Gaiman – the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Le Guin noted that sales departments were given control over editorial, and that her own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. Bemoaning the state of publishing and book-selling, she said, “The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.”

In 2015, she took on Amazon directly, over what she saw as the Company’s growing control over what was published, sold and what was read, in a post titled, ‘Up the Amazon with the BS Machine, or Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon’.

“As a book dealer and publisher,” she wrote, “Amazon wants no competitors, admits no responsibilities, and takes no risks” describing Amazon’s model as, ‘Sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next thing’, with its ideal book being a safe commodity, a commercial product written to the specifications of the current market, that will hit the BS list, get to the top, and vanish. Because, ‘Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.’

She’s not at war with Amazon, she assures us at the start of the post but has issues with it trying to control not just bookselling, but book publishing, “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is. I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.”

But as always, Ursula K. Le Guin believed in people and their intelligence to make the right choice, noting, “Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach”.

Well, we will have no more new stories about Ursula K. Le Guin to tell. But her books and words will no doubt continue to inspire, broaden the horizons and touch the lives of generations of readers and writers to come. Join me then in wishing her – as Stephen King said – Godspeed into the Galaxy. And if there is one story that you must read this weekend, let it be The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a very short piece of fiction, a story so simple a child could understand it, yet one so deep adults can spend hours debating it.

Farewell then Ursula K. Le Guin, the one who inspired many to walk away from their Omelas.


Updated on 1:07 PM on 29 January 2018 to fix the caption on Ursula K. Le Guin's photo, which earlier read (1929–2109). Also added 'Century', a missing word in the subsequent paragraph, in 'The Best 20th Century Science Fiction Novels and Best 20th Century Fantasy Novels'