Posted by: kshayes513 | April 28, 2009

Ursula K. Le Guin wins the Nebula

Ursula K. Le Guin won the Nebula Award this weekend.

I’m delighted to report this news of my favorite living writer. The Nebula was awarded to her novel Powers, the third in her new series The Annals of the Western Shore.Powers cover

She also made this year’s Tiptree Award Honor List for her new novel Lavinia.

Le Guin is one of the most honored and respected of American writers in any genre. Until this week, I’d have said she is also among the most overlooked by science fiction readers and commentators, not to mention booksellers.

Whenever I mention Le Guin to friends who are readers, their response is always that they love Le Guin, especially The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), A Wizard of Earthsea (1970), or perhaps The Lathe of Heaven (1971). 

This seems to me the equivalent of saying, “Oh, yes, I’m a great Tolkien fan. I love The Hobbit.

Critics and scholars seem to be equally stuck in Le Guin’s early career. Just this year, I’ve read 2 “overviews” of Le Guin by literary scholars, which begin and end with novels she wrote almost 40 years ago.

(The notable exception to this roll of literary dishonor is Strange Horizons, which recently published an essay discussing revisioning in the latest 3 Earthsea books, and a very fine review of Lavinia.)

In recent years I’ve also found Le Guin’s work increasingly absent from the chain bookstores near me (there are no convenient independent booksellers nearby). The local Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks both have extensive spec fic, comics and manga sections; but the last time I stopped in, I found not a single Le Guin novel on the shelves in either one.

Luckily, Le Guin is always in stock on line at her “bookshelf” in Powell’s Books, her home bookstore in Portland OR, and virtually all of her fiction is still in print.

To most SF/F fans, Le Guin is a spec fiction writer, though in fact her published work includes many realistic literary short stories, poetry, essays, translations, and childrens’ books. I have the impression she doesn’t bother much with genre labels, she writes what she wants to write.

Le Guin once wrote that she thought her main theme was marriage; and perhaps it is, if marriage is taken as one very intimate aspect of working out the messy tangle of human relationships. Many people think of Le Guin as a feminist writer, though it seems to me that some who apply this label to do so because she wrote one novel about a culture of androgynes, where gender conflicts by definition don’t exist. If she fits that genre, its in the most positive sense of feminism: a belief that no one, male or female, should be limited by their gender or sexual orientation; not in the sense of “man hating separatism.”

For me, Le Guin’s most important theme is domination vs cooperation. Does society work best if some people and groups have power over others, or if everyone has to work by consensus and cooperation? How much power, how much consensus, and when is either extreme taken too far?

And because there’s no better way to understand the nature and effect of power than to listen to the powerless, Le Guin’s stories often take the perspective of a subservient or disenfranchised group: a literate, civilized people conquered by barbarians who believe all writing is demonic (Voices); a harmonious traditional society whose social and cultural fabric is being shredded by a ruthlessly modernizing government (The Telling); women in several societies where men have all the political, economic and magical power (such as Tehanu, another Nebula winner).

Reading Le Guin for nearly 40 years has taught me to listen for those voices of the powerless in my own life, and in the real world. I count that her most valuable gift to me.

I hope that these two recent honors will remind many people that Le Guin has never stopped writing in all the years since those early classics, and inspire them to discover for themselves that what she’s writing these days is as far beyond The Left Hand of Darkness as The Lord of the Rings is beyond The Hobbit.

Next up, I’ll list some of Le Guin’s best recent fiction so you know where to start reading.


  1. I think that _Tehanu_ is even more feminist in its way than _Left Hand of Darkness_. In it Le Guin is discussing women’s power specifically, and how it relates to men’s power. In fact, she runs a bit close to essentialism, though doesn’t actually cross the line.

    If you can, find a copy of _Revisioning Earthsea_, the lecture she gave at Oxford a while ago, in which she discusses specifically how feminism led her to return to Earthsea 20 years after she’d written the first three books. It’s a wonderful talk, particularly where she compares writing within one’s tradition to riding a dragon, then getting off and walking when one leaves one’s tradition for something new.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: