True Journey is Return: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)
Like all of us, I think, I’m stunned and saddened to hear of Ursula Le Guin’s death. She was one of the greatest writers in the world. A writer central to my reading from my teens.
I say stunned and the news is stunning, but we must remember that Ursula Le Guin was 88, and had a remarkably full life, active in the mind until the end. (It does appear she had been in failing health for some months.) So I hope this can be seen as more a celebration of a great life – from the only point of view I can take myself, that of a lover of her writing.
I can still easily call up in my mind the cover of The Dispossessed, in front of me on the cafeteria table at Naperville Central High School some time in 1975, as I read it during lunch hour. Malafrena was a gift from a friend – I read it eagerly, and loved it – it’s a young person’s book, I think, an ardent book – I understand it was her earliest written novel to see publication, and that shows, but it is still one of my favorites. And her last novel, Lavinia, from 2008, is also one of my favorites, a beautifully written and moving and involving story of the wife of Aeneas. I read the Earthsea books in high school as well, and wrote a term paper on them, despite my teacher’s skepticism about Fantasy. Her prose was truly elegant, truly lovely. Her speculation was rigorous and honest and fruitful in itself. Even from the earliest she was striking – the story “Semley’s Necklace” (the opening segment of Rocannon's World, her first published novel) is heartbreaking and powerful. And her first story in an SF magazine, “April in Paris”, is sweet and lovely and romantic … I don’t know how it was received at the time but to me it must have seemed an announcement: “This is special. This is a Writer.”
So many of her short stories are special to me … “Winter’s King”, “Nine Lives”, “The Stars Below”, “Another Story”, “Imaginary Countries”, the Yeowe/Werel stories, all the fables of Changing Planes. Some 20 years ago an online discussion group asked what was the greatest single author story collection in SF (not counting Collected Stories books or Best Of books), and my choice was then, and remains now, without question, The Wind's Twelve Quarters.
I never met Le Guin. I reprinted one of her stories, “Elementals”, in the 2013 edition of my Best of the Year book. And I feel particularly fortunate to have written her towards the middle of 2017, asking her about Cele Goldsmith. I didn’t expect a response, but she sent one, absolutely helpful and gracious. I had mentioned I was working on a long piece about Goldsmith – I still am! – and she said she hoped she would be able to read it. I promised to send it to her and I feel particularly sad that she will not see it – though the loss is mine, not hers.
I am an emotional reader at times, and one thing Le Guin could do, repeatedly, was bring me to tears – tears of awe and wonder, tears of sadness, tears of love. I leave with some of my favorite quotes:
“Kaph looked at him and saw the thing he had never seen before, saw him: Owen Pugh, the other, the stranger who held his hand out in the dark.” (I tear up just typing this.)
“Stars and gatherings of stars, depth below depth without end, the light.”
“But all this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.”
And, of course, as Le Guin’s journey on this Earth has ended, we remember, from The Dispossessed: “True journey is return”.