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Ursula Le Guin earns a rare honor


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The Library of America is a distinguished non-profit publisher that releases handsome hardcover volumes of the major works of important US authors like James Baldwin and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These authors are usually long dead, but Ursula Le Guin will be one of the few exceptions when the Library of America publishes its first volume of her work in September. Readers expecting to re-discover her early sci-fi work will be surprised to learn that the volume contains an early realist novel set in an imaginary Central European country, along with several related stories. As Le Guin explains in an interview with the NY Times, she has never thought of herself as exclusively a sci-fi writer. Here’s an excerpt:

The internet is full of Le Guin fans who say she doesn’t get the credit she deserves. “The Word for World Is Forest” (1976), about malevolent humans brutally invading a planet of peaceful forest-dwelling aliens, anticipated James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009), about malevolent humans brutally invading a planet of peaceful forest-dwelling aliens. “Planet of Exile” (1966) has 15-year seasons, barbarians invading from the north and vicious creatures called snowghouls, all of which might sound familiar to any “Game of Thrones” fan. And Ms. Le Guin worked out all the details of a school for wizards when J. K. Rowling was 3 years old.

This early work was done at the margins of the culture. “A Wizard of Earthsea” (1968), now regarded as one of the great fantasies of the era, was published by a small press in Berkeley, Calif. “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969), probably her most influential work, was issued as a 95-cent mass-market paperback.

“I published as a genre writer when genre was not literature,” she said. “I paid the price, you could say. Don DeLillo, who comes off as literary without question, takes the award over me” — at the 1985 National Book Awards — “because I published in genre and he didn’t. Also, he’s a man and I’m a woman.” (Mr. DeLillo won for “White Noise”; her book, “Always Coming Home,” was about a far-future California utopia.)

Image of Ursula Le Guin via NY Times.