MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One of the towering figures in science fiction has died, although she never really liked being called a sci-fi writer. Ursula K. Le Guin was best known for the "Earthsea" fantasy books and for her influential gender-bending space saga "The Left Hand Of Darkness." Le Guin won just about every major award you can win, and her mix of sorcerers and spaceships, literary fireworks and feminist sensibility influenced generations of writers who followed her. NPR books editor Petra Mayer is here to talk about Le Guin's legacy. Welcome.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: I got to start with asking you, what was her problem? Why didn't she like being called a sci-fi writer?
MAYER: There's a great quote actually that she gave the Paris Review a few years ago. I will let her speak here because she's the writer. She said, (reading) where I can get prickly and combative is if I'm just called a sci-fi writer. I'm not. I'm a novelist and poet. Don't shove me into your damn pigeon hole where I don't fit because I'm all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeon in all directions.
KELLY: I like her.
MAYER: Tentacles - yeah.
MAYER: She didn't pull any punches. She always kind of went her own way. You know, there were very few women writing sci-fi and fantasy in the '60s when she first began to publish. And it was definitely not as respected a genre as it is today. But she was so influential. Just as an example, when she began to publish the "Earthsea" books in the late-'60s, there were a lot of characters that weren't white, and that was a pretty big deal if the only other thing you were seeing was Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek."
KELLY: Well, so who influenced her to start writing?
MAYER: That's actually an interesting thing to think about because her parents were both anthropologists. And if you've read "The Left Hand Of Darkness," which is - it's set on this planet where gender is fluid and ambiguous and everyone is just called he. It's almost as much of an anthropological study of diplomacy in this culture as it is a sci-fi story. She was a voracious reader. She was known to study Taoism. The ideas of balance from Taoism come through very strongly in her work, particularly in the "Earthsea" novels. There's this one bit where an aspiring mage who's at a magic school that is so not Hogwarts - he has to learn to do by not doing.
One of the things that you hear about genre fiction in general is that it's a lens through which authors can examine our lives and our society. And I always think about Le Guin when I hear that. She wrote this story called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," which is about a beautiful, happy, prosperous city where everything good there - you know, the parades, the parties, the clothes - depends on the life of this one poor child who's kept in misery and squalor. And most of the people in Omelas accept that, and some of them just walk away.
And I feel like it's almost a rite of passage for a young fantasy fan. It was for me to read that story and to react violently to it and to argue about whether you would or wouldn't walk away and then to start mapping that conversation onto the world that you see around you and how you react to that world.
KELLY: You're adding lots to my reading list now for Le Guin books and stories to catch up on. But I want to ask on a personal note. Le Guin was in the headlines a few years ago. She made this fiery speech at the National Book Awards. And Petra, you were there.
MAYER: I was. I was. And it was something to see. It was right around the time that Amazon was in a dispute with a bunch of publishers about pricing. And she was talking about corporate fatwas and commodity profiteers. You could kind of see the people in the audience squirming actually. Here's a little bit of that speech. She said hard times were coming and that we were going to need what she called writers who can remember freedom.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
URSULA K LE GUIN: Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality - right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.
MAYER: And really that was Ursula K. Le Guin for me. Everything she did was art.
KELLY: That is NPR books editor Petra Mayer talking there about Ursula K. Le Guin, who died yesterday at her home in Portland. She was 88. Thanks, Petra.
MAYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.