Ursula Le Guin: We are left behind

I was about to close up my laptop and retire for the night, but I cannot shut my mind to the report of the death of Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy, one of the greatest writers of this last century, at the age of 88.

Like so many of my generation, the first Le Guin I read was the Earthsea Trilogy, a series of magic and wizards of great brilliance and influence. I was young, barely into my teens, when the books first began appearing, with those magical Pauline Baynes covers. Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner, two vastly different writers of different worlds but both, in their ways, writers who depicted a world that could not exist in great reality.

From there, I grew towards such classics as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, books like The Lathe of Heaven and, an astonishing work of imagination, the world of Always Coming Home.

I have nearly all Le Guin’s books, including those that consist of essays about writing. I will return to them and re-read them. She was one of the most clear-headed writers I have ever read.

Ironically, my favourite of her works is not SF or Fantasy, or anything that might be said to concern itself with a future, but the collection of historical stories set in an imaginary Eastern European country, Orsinian Tales. My favourite of them is the last story of the book, not really a story but a depiction of life before the Second World War, among an aristocracy already long gone. It’s last line always resounds with loss.

‘But that was a long time ago, and I do not know whether it still happens in that way, even in imaginary countries.’

From now onwards we will have to imagine a country in which Ursula Le Guin still lives. Our own has become unbearably small for the lack of her.


The quote above, from the short story, ‘Imaginary Countries’, was written from memory last night. Before going to bed, I located the book and read it. My memory was sadly imprecise: the actual words are:

‘But all of this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.’

So much better written than my recollection, more elegant, more fragile.

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