Ursula Le Guin, who beginning in the 1960s upended the male-dominated genres of fantasy and science fiction, crafting novels that grappled with issues of gender inequality, racism and environmental destruction - while featuring magical or extraterrestrial characters whom she described as “real people” nonetheless - died Jan. 22 at her home in Portland. She was 88.
Her son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, said the cause was not immediately known.
While Ms. Le Guin occasionally ventured into realistic fiction, she aimed to avoid the standard fare of contemporary literature, books that she once derided as “fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people written in the present tense.”
Instead, she populated her novels with richly imagined worlds that drew less from recent science fiction than from ancient mythology or Taoism, the Eastern philosophy that emphasizes acceptance and change. Le Guin once translated “Tao Te Ching,” publishing her take on the Taoist classic amid novels, stories and books of essays and poetry that made her one of the most beloved writers in American literature.
She received an honorary National Book Award in 2014 for distinguished contribution to American letters; became a Pulitzer Prize finalist with her 1996 collection “Unlocking the Air and Other Stories”; and in recent years was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. Last year, the British gambling site Ladbrokes put her odds of winning the honor at 33:1.
Still, Le Guin’s fantastical writing style made her something of a literary outsider - a role that she embraced in later years, decrying profit-minded publishers who market writers “like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.”
One of her most acclaimed novels, “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969), was initially published not as a work of hardcover literature, but as a 95-cent mass-market paperback.
The book was awarded the Nebula and Hugo awards, two of science fiction’s highest honors, but Le Guin saw the novel - and all her books that followed - as reaching beyond the genre. Part of a series known as the Hainish Cycle, which included her 1974 book “The Dispossessed,” it centered on a planet of androgynous, humanlike beings with no fixed gender.
“The form of the book is a mosaic of primary sources, an interstellar ethnographer’s notebook, ranging from matter-of-fact journal entries to fragments of alien myth,” novelist John Wray wrote in the Paris Review.
The novel was cited by literary critic Harold Bloom in “The Western Canon,” his overview of classic literature, and paved the way for Le Guin’s broader acceptance, which began in full with her “Earthsea” series for young adults.
The books, centering on a young wizard named Ged who comes to terms with sex, death and other rites of adulthood, have sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. Their third installment, “The Farthest Shore,” received the National Book Award for children’s literature.
“Though marketed as young-adult novels, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ (1968), ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ (1971) and ‘The Farthest Shore’ (1972) are as deeply imagined, as finely wrought, as grown-up as any fiction of our time,” Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in 1990. “They deserve that highest of all accolades: Everyone should read them.”