July 20, 2019

Ursula K. Le Guin: Creator of Worlds

“Her first Earthsea fantasy novel began with a map of islands that she drew for herself in a paper-and-ink archipelago, which offered her the freedom to imagine who might live there. Real places inspired not only her realistic but also her speculative fiction, where the situations were imaginary but the emotionally charged landscapes were often based on ones she knew and loved. In the new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, she tells director Arwen Curry, “I don’t feel so much as if I were ‘making it up’; I know I am, but that’s not what it feels like. It feels like being there and looking around, and listening.”

The American West forms a stunning backdrop to Curry’s look at Le Guin’s life and work. Curry filmed interviews over a period of several years with the essayist, poet, and novelist, who died at age 88 in January last year. We see Le Guin at her home in Portland, Oregon (and during a reading at Powell’s, her hometown bookstore); in the otherworldly high desert of eastern Oregon; and at the rocky Oregon coast, all settings that inspired Le Guin’s writing. At the same time, Curry tracks the progress of Le Guin’s career from the margins of literature to the center.

Born in Berkeley, California, in 1929, Le Guin began publishing science fiction in the early 1960s and within ten years was acknowledged as one of the most important writers in the genre, particularly with the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and The Dispossessed (1974). Curry makes it look like Le Guin rescued science fiction and fantasy more or less single-handedly from a state of literary neglect, which isn’t exactly true. (There were other writers who saw the genre’s potential for yielding enduring literature.) But Le Guin chose this “despised, marginal” genre, she once said, for a reason she couldn’t acknowledge to herself at the time: Because it was “excluded from critical, academic, canonical supervision, leaving the artist free.””

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