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 has died at her home in Portland, Oregon aged 88.
While 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 emphasises acceptance and change. Le Guin once translated the ancient 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 rumoured to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
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 received the Nebula and Hugo awards, two of science fiction's highest honours, 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 centred on a planet of androgynous, humanlike beings.
"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.
Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, California, on October 21, 1929. Both her parents were anthropologists who studied Native Americans in California; her mother was the author of Ishi in Two Worlds, a popular 1961 volume that was subtitled "a biography of the last wild Indian in North America."
She said that her father's relating of Native American legends provided her introduction to fantasy worlds, prompting her to explore similarly folkloric books by Norwegian and Irish authors before her literary epiphany, at age 12, with Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany's A Dreamer's Tales.
"What I hadn't realised, I guess, is that people were still making up myths," she later wrote in an essay. "One made up stories oneself, of course; but here was a grown-up doing it, for grown-ups, without a single apology to common sense, without an explanation, just dropping us straight into the Inner Lands. I had discovered my native country."
She studied Renaissance literature at Radcliffe College, graduating in 1951, and one year later received a master's degree from Columbia University with a thesis on representations of death in the French poetry of Pierre de Ronsard.
Le Guin wrote poetry and short stories, many of them realist in style, before returning to science fiction in the 1960s, inspired in part by the stories of Paul Linebarger, who wrote under the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith.
Her books often anticipated other, more-popular fantasy fare, New York Times journalist David Streitfeld observed in 2016: The Word for World Is Forest (1976), about humans invading a planet of peaceful, nature-loving aliens, seemed an inspiration for James Cameron's blockbuster movie Avatar; Planet of Exile (1966), where the seasons last 15 years and creatures attack from the frigid north, pointed toward Game of Thrones.
Le Guin went on to win several lifetime-achievement awards for science fiction, including the Grand Master award from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and in recent years stretched far beyond the genre in books such as Lavinia (2008), which made a minor character from Virgil's Aeneid the star of her own story.
In large part, the novel was a continuation of a lifelong interest of Le Guin's, a form of feminism that she preferred to describe as humanism.
Delivering the 1983 commencement address at Mills College in Oakland, California, she described a future where young women attained the same sort of independence achieved by many of her characters.
"Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him?" she said, in what rhetoric scholars later listed as one of the top 100 political speeches of the 20th century. "Why should she live her life on his terms? ... I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated."
While travelling to Paris on a Fulbright fellowship, she met historian Charles Le Guin and decided to set aside her doctoral studies. They married in 1953. In addition to her husband and son, both of Portland, survivors include two daughters, Caroline and Elisabeth Le Guin; two brothers; and four grandchildren.
The Washington Post