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Beginning in the 1960s, Ursula K. Le Guin upended the male-dominated genres of fantasy and science fiction, crafting novels that grappled with issues of gender inequality, racism and environmental destruction — while featuring magical or extraterrestrial characters whom she described as “real people” nonetheless.

Ms. Le Guin’s fantastical writing style made her something of a literary outsider — a role that she embraced in later years, decrying profit-minded publishers who market writers “like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.”

She died Jan. 22 at her home in Portland, Ore. She was 88. Her son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, said the cause was not immediately known.

Her life

  • She was born in Berkeley, Calif., on Oct, 21, 1929.
  • Her parents were anthropologists who studied American Indians in California; her mother was the author of “Ishi in Two Worlds,” a popular 1961 volume that was subtitled “a biography of the last wild Indian in North America.”
  • Ms. Le Guin studied Renaissance literature at Radcliffe College, graduating in 1951, and one year later received a master’s degree from Columbia University with a thesis on representations of death in the French poetry of Pierre de Ronsard.
  • While traveling to Paris on a Fulbright fellowship, she met historian Charles Le Guin and decided to set aside her doctoral studies. They married in 1953.

Her work

One of her most acclaimed novels, “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969), was initially published not as a work of hardcover literature, but as a 95-cent mass-market paperback.

The book was awarded the Nebula and Hugo awards, two of science fiction’s highest honors, but Ms. Le Guin saw the novel — and all her books that followed — as reaching beyond the genre.

Part of a series known as the Hainish Cycle, which included her 1974 book “The Dispossessed,” it centered on a planet of androgynous, humanlike beings with no fixed gender.

The novel was cited by literary critic Harold Bloom in “The Western Canon,” his overview of classic literature, and paved the way for Ms. Le Guin’s broader acceptance, which began in full with her “Earthsea” series for young adults.

The books, centering on a young wizard named Ged who comes to terms with sex, death and other rites of adulthood, have sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. Their third installment, “The Farthest Shore,” received the National Book Award for children’s literature.

“Though marketed as young-adult novels, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ (1968), ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ (1971) and ‘The Farthest Shore’ (1972) are as deeply imagined, as finely wrought, as grown-up as any fiction of our time,” Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in 1990. “They deserve that highest of all accolades: Everyone should read them.”

Other work

  • Ms. Le Guin wrote poetry and short stories, many of them realist in style.
  • She once translated the ancient “Tao Te Ching,” publishing her take on the Taoist classic.

Her thoughts on women

Ms. Le Guin had a form of feminism that she preferred to describe as humanism.

Delivering the 1983 commencement address at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., she described a future where young women attained the same sort of independence achieved by many of her characters.

“Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him?” she said, in what rhetoric scholars later listed as one of the top 100 political speeches of the 20th century. “Why should she live her life on his terms? . . . I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated.”


  • She received an honorary National Book Award in 2014 for distinguished contribution to American letters.
  • She became a Pulitzer Prize finalist with her 1996 collection “Unlocking the Air and Other Stories.”
  • Ms. Le Guin received the Grand Master award from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America organization.
  • In recent years, she was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. Last year, the British gambling site Ladbrokes put her odds of winning the honor at 33:1.

In addition to her husband and son, both of Portland, survivors include two daughters, Caroline Le Guin of Oregon City, Ore., and Elisabeth Le Guin of Santa Ana, Calif.; two brothers; and four grandchildren.

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