Ursula K. Le Guin 1929–-
(Full name Ursula Kroeber Le Guin) American novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, essayist, lecturer, author of children's books, editor, dramatist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism of Le Guin's short fiction from 1990 to 2000. See also Ursula Le Guinn Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 8, 13, 22.
A highly respected award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction, Le Guin is best known for her stories in which alternative societies serve as the backdrop for discussion about philosophic and social issues such as morality, individual identity, political ideology, and racial interaction. Perhaps unexpectedly, Le Guin's works seem to be shaped more by the social sciences than the physical sciences, as evidenced in her writing by the prominent inclusion of historical context, varied political and economic systems, diverse cultures, and psychological characteristics.
Born in Berkeley, California, Le Guin grew up in a home where intellectual life was celebrated and famous scholars were regular visitors. Her father, Alfred Louis Kroeber, was an acclaimed anthropologist; her mother, Theodora, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, the biography of a Native American who was a friend of the Kroeber family. Storytelling, reading, and a respect for diverse cultures informed life in the Kroeber household and were lasting influences on Le Guin. She wrote her first piece of fiction at age nine and submitted a story to Amazing Stories at age eleven. She studied French and Italian at Radcliffe College and earned a B.A. in Renaissance literature in 1951. She continued her literary studies at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in 1952. She was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1953 and sailed to Paris to begin a year of study in preparation for her doctoral dissertation. However, en route she met a fellow scholar, Charles Le Guin, whom she married in December 1953, at which point she ceased her own doctoral studies. From 1966 to 1968 Le Guin published her first four novels—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), and City of Illusions (1967), known as the Hainish trilogy, and A Wizard of Earthsea (1967), which received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Le Guin's first literary prize. Le Guin published consistently into the twentieth-first century, receiving numerous honors and awards along the way. In 2004 Le Guin was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award by the American Library Association, honoring her lifetime contribution to young adult readers.
Le Guin's short fiction often explores political concerns. For example, The Word for World Is Forest (1972) is by Le Guin's own admission an analogy for American military involvement in Vietnam; the novella depicts a heavily forested environment and the subjugation of native people by means of force. Some commentators have criticized Le Guin's work as overtly polemical, a charge commonly leveled at the novella The Eye of the Heron (1978), which details the response of pacifists to the threat posed by a violent group with whom they share their space colony. However, works such as Orsinian Tales (1976), which comprises stories set from 1150 through 1965 in an imagined Central European country, are judged subtle renderings of political climate: in a description of the efforts of one person to assist people past the border patrol, “A Week in the Country” intimates the slightly dystopian temper of the government. Some commentators note the psychological emphasis to Le Guin's work. “The Good Trip” is about a man whose wife suffers from insanity. He hallucinates a meaningful conversation with his wife and, after initially ascribing the visionary encounter to the effects of LSD, recognizes the experience as the result of his fervent, unwavering love for his wife. In Four Ways to Forgiveness (1996), the four stories in the collection are set on Yeowe, a planet that was once a colony. Le Guin explores the political, cultural, and psychological effects of slavery and liberation on the populace.
Le Guin's stories sometimes impart general philosophical observations. She has suggested that “The Masters” and “The Stars Below” can be interpreted as allegories in which the suppression of science represents the rejection of art and creativity. “Schrödinger's Cat” emphasizes the uncertainty inherent in life and dismisses the belief that science can be an alternative to or substitute for spiritual hope. Le Guin's fiction commonly presents encounters with the unfamiliar, a theme that critics assert is greatly molded by the anthropological work of her parents, who published several works about North American Indians and introduced their daughter to the culture and history of those people. “Mazes” depicts a scientist who attempts to test the intelligence of an alien yet comprehends neither the alien's behavior nor dietary needs, a misunderstanding that leads to starvation of the creature. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” relates the mutual unease of an exploration team and the vast sentient vegetable organism inhabiting the planet that they are scouting; one explorer, however, comes to understand and appreciate the creature. By contrast, The Word for World Is Forest provides no optimistic resolution of confrontation between colonialists and the forest people whose planet they have commandeered. Another story, “Nine Lives,” describes the unlikely friendship that develops between a genetically engineered, constitutionally superior clone and a feeble human.
For many years, Le Guin's work received scant critical attention largely because it could not be easily classified. Rather than considering her experimentation with genre a sign of versatility, critics saw the lack of a clearly defined genre as a barrier to assessing her work. Even the Earthsea series initially received little in the way of critical review—first, because it was fantasy, and second, because it was perceived as children's literature. Published during the women's movement of the 1970s, the series was criticized by some feminists for its male bias. In more recent times, her development as a feminist author has been a topic of critical discussion. Commentators have explored political, feminist, psychological, and sociocultural themes in Le Guin's short fiction, often asserting that her stories provide insight into contemporary political, social, and cultural concerns. Critics only belatedly acknowledged that Le Guin's books broke rich new ground in the world of science fiction literature, considerably deepening and broadening the definition of the genre. Today she is regarded as one of the most important science fiction writers in contemporary literature.