Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin — It is One Thing to Read About Dragons and Another to Meet Themby@rizstanford
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Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin — It is One Thing to Read About Dragons and Another to Meet Them

by Rizwan VirkJanuary 24th, 2018
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Like many others, I was sad to learn about the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin today.

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Why Her Work Meant So Much To me

Like many others, I was sad to learn about the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin today.

I had just sent her an email last week promising a new draft of a script that we’d been working on, and strangely enough, a link to my blog entry “What I found on Arthur C Clarke’s Bookshelf in Sri Lanka” commenting on how I was glad that famous sci fi writer’s office had been maintained since his death.

After I’d sent the email I had an odd feeling — hopefully she didn’t think I was hinting anything about her age and preserving her office after her death— I just thought she might enjoy the article (she was the recipient of the 2_013 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Impact of Imagination_).

This feeling of oddness only increased when she didn’t respond — in my experience, she was usually pretty good about responding promptly, and wasn’t shy with offering her opinion, particularly when it came to adapting her work. Or if she was busy and couldn’t respond right away, she usually let me know that too. I didn’t realize that she was in her last days then; it saddens me to know the reason why now.

“Only in Silence the Word, Only in Dark the Light” — A Wizard of Earthsea

paperback versions of the original Earthsea trilogy

For those who don’t know Ursula’s work, she was known in some circles as the “Grand Dame” of science fiction. Having written 20+ novels since being first published in the 1960s, she had won almost every major award in sci fi/ fantasy, including the Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, and the National Book Foundation Medal, and was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American in 2002.

I originally met her as a fan of her work looking to get her signature, and then later got to know her personally as a collaborator on adapting one of her novels to film (a project which we haven’t announced publicly yet). Although I met her in person only rarely, much of our interaction was over email over the past few years and she was very sharp and her humor (and frustration when she didn’t like something) came through quite loud and clear!

I wanted to take this time to say what her work meant to me throughout my life.

Ursula’s work was unique in science fiction and fantasy, not so much because of what was in the books (which was unique) because of what was not in the books. There were no mass battles of armies of orcs or killer robots. There were no aliens (well, at least no non-human aliens) in her science fiction. No single “Dark Lord” or “Chosen One”. The truth was always more ambiguous and her novels forced you to think about people and concepts and ideas, consequences, as much as about the particular storyline.

The Isle of Gont was Famous for its Wizards, and Roke was the First School for Wizards

A map of the Archipelago of Earthsea

I am always surprised when some of the younger sci fi and fantasy fans out there don’t know Ursula’s work. Usually they know about Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Hunger Games but may not have read Earthsea or t_he Left Hand of Darkness_. This is partly because her work is much more difficult to adapt into the normal narrative structures of TV shows and films (trust me I’ve probably spent more years thinking about adapting her works than most anyone!).

I read her first when I was in the ninth grade in the Midwest. I was a brown kid living in a sea of white faces, a little insecure and just finding my nerdy geeky side; I had found refuge in the Hobbit and Tolkien. My favorite character was always the wizard, Gandalf. Then one fine day I came across an article about how “wizards” become wise old Gandalfs — they went to wizarding school! It was all described in a little book called “A Wizard of Earthsea” by a woman I’d never heard of, Ursula K. Le Guin.

I immediately looked for the book in our little library in Williston, ND, and was delighted they had a copy! It was a rather small book and I gobbled it up quickly, and then went looking for its sequels, which our library had to order using inter-library loans.

After reading that first book, I would never be the same! Although short in length, it was jam packed with ideas that cut to my core.

Over the years, as I’ve read other science fiction and fantasy, I’ve always come back to that book, A Wizard of Earthsea. I still remember, to this day, almost 35 years later, lines that embedded themselves in my teenage mind:

“To Light a Candle Is to Cast A Shadow”

I had never thought about the consequences of magic before. Magic was just something wizards could do and I wished I could do. “To use real magic is to change the world in some way”- explained the Masters at Roke to young Sparrowhawk. Changing the world has consequences.

But even more than the Taoist philsophy behind some of her work (which grew in importance to me the older I got), imagine how surprised I was to learn that the hero (well, she doesn’t really do heroes, so let’s say protagonist) of A Wizard of Earthsea was a brown-skinned young man close to my own age!

It was as if lightning struck for me. The lightning of inspiration had come from her to me (and perhaps every other kid of color who had never seen themselves in the fantasy world). This issue of race (and gender) became very important in her work, which often had women or people of color as the main character. She once wrote that she “snuck” the information that Sparrowhawk was a young brown man, into the book, which was published in 1968. Both readers and publishers wouldn’t realize it until later on in the book and by then they were too hooked to care. Back then, you didn’t have brown heroes of science fiction or fantasy, just white ones.

For someone like myself, who grew up in places that made me feel “different”, this was an incredible revelation! For me, Sparrowhawk was a role model just like Barack Obama is probably a role model for black kids growing up in America now. Yes, it really meant that much to me and the places of Earthsea and the lessons Sparrowhawk learned, the places he went, and the people he interacted with, stayed with me all these years.

Years later, when The SyFy mini-series based on Earthsea not only changed the story significantly, but also cast a white guy in the lead, Ursula wrote a now famous essay, “How the Sy Fy channel whitewashed my Earthsea series” and those of us who were true Earthsea fans applauded her courage and conviction!

Years after reading A Wizard of Earthsea, when I arrived as a freshman at MIT, I wandered around the corridors at night by myself, I always imagined myself wearing a wizard robe and holding a staff, wandering the corridors of the School of Magic in Roke. This was well before anyone (including J.K. Rowling herself) had heard of Hogwarts!

Le Guin’s heroes were imperfect, and Sparrowhawk was no exception. He was willfull and misused his power and screwed up royally, releasing a shadow into he world. He had to deal with the consequences of his actions. He had unleashed the shadow and needed to embrace his shadow before he could become whole and the “great fantasy hero”. This wasn’t your typical “chosen one”!

I could go on and on about Earthsea. To this day, I still imagine myself retreating to the “Immanent Grove” when I’m stressed out and need to retreat from the physical world or thinking about how the world is changed, how the equilibrium is disturbed with each of my actions. I find myself wondering what I would do if I had to meet a dragon or battle a wizard who had torn a whole in the world, robbing the dragons of speech., what would I do? What if we could bring up the spirits of the dead — should we do it? And I have always wondered if a Dragon would speak to me if they were real. In my books about spirituality and business, I bring up the subject of dragons often, and it’s very much because of Earthsea.

I was attracted by the Wizards and the dragons, but it was the underlying themes espoused in those books that made me go back again and again.

“One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion” -Ursula K. Le Guin

I took to Ursula’s science fiction books, particularly her Hainish cycle, much later than her fantasy books. This is partly because they didn’t have any dragons but also because they were even more thoughtful, adding issues of gender into issues of culture and government. They were almost too sophisticated for the teenager who first took to Earthsea.

For those of us who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, she offered a very different version of a “federation of planets”. The Ekumen were more like interstellar anthropologists than a “governing body”; their goal wasn’t conquest or governance, it was to preserve and share knowledge. As I got more interested in Native American cultures (producing a few films shot on the Navajo reservation), I realized that the “K” in Ursula K. Le Guin stood for Kroeber, and her father was a very well known anthropologist who studied many Native American cultures (Alfred Kroeber).

While her best known books in this series included The Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed, one of my favorites was The Telling, which came out in 2000 and was the last of her Hainish novels. In both TLHOD and the Telling, the main character is a human from Earth who is sent to a planet on behalf of the Ekumen. Not only were the books in the Hainish series not direct sequels, each described the culture of a particular world and was a study of its culture, which we could understand because the main character was from Terra (err, Earth).

One of the early covers for the Left Hand of Darkness

In this quantum age, we are getting closer to the communications device she introduced in her work, the Ansible, which used a form of quantum entanglement to send messages instantly across the light years. Many other science fiction writers have used the Ansible in their own work and called it the same name in honor of her introducing it first. If and when we do interact with other planets and civilizations, we should keep Ursula’s ideals of the Ekumen in mind, and not those of Independence Day!

Meeting the Dragon

Ursula once wrote, “but it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.”

As I think about what she was like when I met her, though this analogy just came at me now, was that she was like a Wise, Old, but Powerful Dragon. Like Orm Embar or Kalessin. She was knowledgeable and wise, but she was also tough and firm when she disagreed with something and you didn’t want to anger her! At other times she was like a nice old grandmother taking care of you, yet they were different parts of one extraordinary being.

Though most of my interaction with her was over email or phone, the few times I met her in person were very interesting — she ruminated on many things, including other science fiction and fantasy writers like George R.R.Martin and Philip K. Dick.

In fact, she told me a story about Dick that was interesting and worth recounting. Because Phil went to the same high school as Ursula in Berkeley, and they were only one year apart, she said, they must have been there at the same time. When she realized this (many years after graduating), she looked in her yearbook and didn’t find any trace of him. She asked all of her classmates at a reunion if they remembered him — and no one remembered him, nor could they find any trace of him! She ended the story by saying she felt like she was inside a Philip K. Dick story — where all traces of him had been removed from the yearbook and her classmates minds!

I wanted to find a way to end this piece feeling like we are in an Ursula K. Le Guin novel on the occasion of her death.

Although Earthsea started as a young adult series, it delved very heavily into themes surrounding death. In the Farthest Shore, a hole was ripped between the living and the dead by a wizard who wanted to be immortal. This was unnatural, and caused an imbalance in the Equilibrium, and as a result it was sucking wizardry and magic out of the world.

It was up to Ged (Sparrowhawk’s true name), no longer a precocious young wizard, but now the wise old Archmage of the school at Roke, to go into the world of the dead with his young companion, the new hero, to repair the hole.

To do this, he had to cross over a fence and descend an immense hillside that was under an unmoving set of stars in an eternal twilight. The fence was the divider between the world of the living and the dead. This wasn’t hell, it was rather the “other side”.

Now that Ursula has crossed over to the other side, I wonder if she’s looking back at the fence, up at the unmoving stars, back at those of us who are still on this side, or if she’s eager to find more stories to tell to the people of that other world. Or like Tehanu, she’ll be re-united with her people, the Dragons.

Those of us here who valued her work feel like there is a new hole in the world and the wizardry and magic have been pulled out of it.

In the Farthest Shore, it was a dragon that told Ged about the “hole in the world”. If we were in a Le Guin story, I could imagine having a similar conversation to Ged’s with Orm Embar.

“A great powerful dragonlord has sucked the magic out of the world, ” says the old, wise, powerful dragon. “and his power is greater than us. “

“Even than thine, Ursula?”

“Even than mine,” she would answer.

Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them, all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth.”

-Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore