In the second book of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, the wizard Ged tells the priestess Arha that she has a choice. Stay and serve the nameless grim gods of the tomb, as she has done the last ten years of her life, or walk away from them into the light. Arha knows nothing but the dark, not even her original name. Before a religious order named her Arha, the Eaten One, she was Tenar; she had a family, an identity, choices. She can be Tenar again, but only if she can admit that she’s wasted her entire life on false gods, and only if she follows Ged out of the tombs and into a world she has never really known.
The Earthsea books are set in a world where dragons are real and so is magic. As Arha’s choice so poignantly demonstrates, Le Guin explored these fantastical worlds out of an interest in the liberatory possibilities of the human imagination. “Imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there other ways to do things, other ways to be; that there is not just one civilization, and it is good, and it is the way we have to be,” Le Guin says in Arwen Curry’s new documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin spoke in defense of science fiction and fantasy, which were and often still are maligned or outright ignored by critics. But her statement admits another, deeper necessity: We must be trained to imagine.
But imagine what? Not just magic and dragons, though Le Guin wrote of both—and who wouldn’t, if they had the chance? These elements loop in and out of Le Guin’s profoundly political body of work, a dimension Curry unveils with welcome clarity in her film, which was completed before Le Guin’s death in 2018 at the age of eighty-eight. By that time, Le Guin enjoyed preeminence within her genre and outside it. She won seven Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards, and twenty-two Locus Awards, and the U.S. Library of Congress decreed her a “Living Legend” in 2000. Curry presents a strong case for solidifying that understanding of Le Guin as a great American author and as a public intellectual, dragons and all.
Le Guin is rightly remembered for her contributions to the genre she so doggedly defended. Her science fiction displays remarkable range and originality, shaped by her upbringing as the daughter of renowned anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. She dreamed up flying cat-horse creatures and invented a galactic utopia concerned more with the collection of knowledge than with waging war. One of her most imaginative and unusual works, Always Coming Home (1985), presents the collected songs and stories of the post-industrial Kesh people, who live far in the future of Earth.
Schools for young wizards and the magical import of a person’s true and secret name are common tropes in fantasy now, but they have their origins in the Earthsea cycle (1964–2018). Le Guin likely invented the concept of the ansible, a device that transmits faster-than-light communication across the galaxy, and which has since been adopted by multiple science-fiction authors. Her capacity for innovation did not end with the creation of new concepts; she subverted her genre, too. In Le Guin’s work, archetypes like the wizard and the quest become lenses; through them, we see the future she believed we could build.
For Le Guin, the ansible did not only solve a storytelling problem created by the fiction of long-distance space travel. In The Dispossessed (1974), which tells of its genesis, the ansible’s architect, Shevek, is a restless physicist who journeys from Anarres, his anarchist moon colony, to Urras, an oligarchic neighboring world. He despises walls, and not just the ones made of stone; what Shevek truly loathes are barriers to inquiry, intangible but formidable. He finds those barriers on each planet, and then he breaks them down. To prevent his work from ever becoming the property of a single power, he tells an ambassador from Earth, which is called Terra, that she must distribute his completed theory to every world in the galaxy. “So that one of you cannot use it,” he says, “to get power over others, to get richer or win more wars. So that you cannot use the truth for your private profit, but only for the common good.” The ansible is the antithesis of a wall.
Le Guin had some experience with walls. She began writing science fiction at a time when the genre was dominated by men, and by white men in particular. Publishers rejected her earliest work; she had talent, they told her again and again, but she would find no audience. A more cynical writer might have conformed, and concerned themselves with the violent sagas of virile spacemen. Le Guin preferred other stories and other voices. Her heroes weren’t soldiers but anthropologists and scientists and the occasional wizard, which is kind of like a scientist if viewed from the right angle. She earned a Hugo Award for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which depicted a world whose inhabitants change gender every month, decades before right-wing authors tried to rig the awards against the field’s “social justice warriors,” a group of authors who just happened to be mostly black, or female, or queer. The protagonist of her first Earthsea novel, Ged, is brown. “My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill,” she wrote after the Syfy channel cast a white actor in its 2004 adaptation of the Earthsea cycle. Walls are stubborn, but so was Le Guin. She dreamed of taking them apart.
Think of a perfect place. There’s no hunger and no crime, but it is a real city, not an afterlife mirage. That’s the premise of one of Le Guin’s most famous works, a stand-alone short story titled “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973). At first the city of Omelas seems like a dream. But Le Guin wasn’t interested in wish fulfillment. Once in their lifetimes, the people of Omelas are taken to a lonely basement, where a child has been chained up not to die but to live in misery. No one may speak a kind word to them for as long they live. Some people make excuses for what they’ve seen. Others forget it. A few never make peace with it and leave the city—sometimes the same day, sometimes years later. They walk out into darkness and they never return. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness,” Le Guin wrote. Their destination may not even exist, she added, and she did not offer a description. Though they have no experience of the world outside their own borders, they “seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
The journey is a fantasy genre mainstay, whether the setting is Middle Earth or outer space. But where most quests usually come to an end—uprisings conclude, magic rings melt, new kings take their thrones—Le Guin preferred less certain resolutions. Genly Ai, the diplomat protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness, is on a mission to bring the world of Winter and its androgynous inhabitants into the Ekumen, Le Guin’s alliance of planets. But Genly’s arrival upends a fragile geopolitical relationship between two of Winter’s nations. After a deadly journey through the world’s harshest climate, Genly succeeds. Winter will join the Ekumen, but doing so permanently changes the world; it can never return to its old isolation. In The Word for World is Forest, human beings colonize a planet and introduce the concepts of murder and rape to the indigenous Athsheans, who are pacifists. The Athsheans rebel, the humans leave, but violence is now part of the Athshean culture. In The Eye of the Heron, published five years after “Omelas,” a privileged young woman abandons her home city after its leaders brutalize a nearby pacifist community. In exile, she sets out into the great woods of her home planet, which is a former prison colony, with her new allies. They have no destination, only the unrealized vision of an egalitarian society.
A feminist and a critic of capitalism, Le Guin must have known that progress was as much a necessity as it was an uncertainty. Nobody knows exactly what will happen when they set out to do what no one else has ever done. Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.
Le Guin’s utopianism perhaps explains why her characters exhibit a certain adaptability, as did Le Guin herself. In her work, she mostly eschewed great battles; a reader of her work should not expect to find a clash at Helm’s Deep. A Le Guin character may be at war with his basest self, but the health of the body politic can be at stake at the same time. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai only completes his mission to bring Winter into the Ekumen after he overcomes his own prejudicial beliefs about the people who live there.
Le Guin found herself embroiled in a similar struggle, which she recounts to Curry. As acclaimed as The Left Hand of Darkness became, feminists criticized it because, while Le Guin’s alien race changed genders, in their default state they used male pronouns. Genly is male, too. “At first I felt a little bit defensive,” she told Curry. “But as I thought about it, I began to see that my critics were right.” There’s a quiet radicalism about her admission. Science fiction’s modern reactionaries are not prone to such self-criticism, and neither, for that matter, are authors in other genres. Had the Left Hand controversy occurred today, it would’ve launched a thousand think pieces casting Le Guin as a martyr for free speech. But martyrdom was antithetical to her principles. She wrote Left Hand to explore the differences between men and women, she said—and she stayed an explorer, perhaps at the expense of her own ego. “Just because you’ve written a book about something, doesn’t mean you’re done thinking about it,” she said. “My job is not to arrive at a final answer, and just deliver it. I see my job as holding doors open, or opening windows. But who comes in and out the doors, what you see out the window, how do I know?”
The late British academic Mark Fisher once compared capitalism to the titular monster of John Carpenter’s The Thing—an alien creature that infects, and then assimilates, hapless human beings. The corruption hides behind a familiar face. Capitalism becomes whatever it touches. Inside this totality, the introduction of some new thing might just feel like a dream. Maybe, then, an opening is all anyone needs. A crack. A tear. Some tiny rent in the real. “Leave the tombs,” Ged tells Tenar. “And that is the beginning of the story.”
Sarah Jones is a staff writer for New York Magazine.