The Casual Optimist

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The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

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illustration Essy May

illustration Essy May

Julie Phillips long profile of author Ursula K. Le Guin for The New Yorker is wonderful:

Starting in the nineteen-eighties, [Le Guin] published some of her most accomplished work—fiction that was realist, magic realist, postmodernist, and sui generis. She wrote the Borgesian feminist parable “She Unnames Them,” and in 1985 an experimental tour de force of a novel, “Always Coming Home.” She produced “Sur,” the epic tale of an all-female Antarctic exploring party that may be her greatest and funniest feminist statement. Her short stories began appearing in The New Yorker, where her editor, Charles McGrath, saw in her an ability to “transform genre fiction into something higher.”

In fact, it was the mainstream that ended up transformed. By breaking down the walls of genre, Le Guin handed new tools to twenty-first-century writers working in what Chabon calls the “borderlands,” the place where the fantastic enters literature. A group of writers as unlike as Chabon, Molly Gloss, Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Victor LaValle, Zadie Smith, and David Mitchell began to explore what’s possible when they combine elements of realism and fantasy. The fantasy and science-fiction scholar Brian Attebery has noted that “every writer I know who talks about Ursula talks about a sense of having been invited or empowered to do something.” Given that many of Le Guin’s protagonists have dark skin, the science-fiction writer N. K. Jemisin speaks of the importance to her and others of encountering in fantasy someone who looked like them. Karen Joy Fowler, a friend of Le Guin’s whose novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” questions the nature of the human-animal bond, says that Le Guin offered her alternatives to realism by bringing the fantastic out of its “underdog position.” For writers, she says, Le Guin “makes you think many things are possible that you maybe didn’t think were possible.”

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