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'No Time to Spare' a fond, fierce farewell by the great Ursula Le Guin

Posted February 4, 2018 6:07 p.m. EST

As clear-eyed as ever about the future, Ursula K. Le Guin titled her new essay collection No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.

She really didn't have time to spare. The book published in December. Le Guin died at her home in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 22 at age 88.

Her death drew heartfelt tributes from several generations of writers who found inspiration in her books and, in many cases, friendship with her. The list includes Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Diaz and Daniel Handler, Neil Gaiman and Jeff VanderMeer, Walter Mosley and Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith and Karen Joy Fowler and many more.

Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), who wrote the introduction to No Time to Spare, says in it of Le Guin, "She has, in her life and her work, always been a force for good, an acute social critic, necessary more now than ever as we watch the evil turn the world is taking. We who followed her both as readers and writers are the lucky ones. We not only love her; we need her."

Le Guin was indeed a force. Best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, she wrote in many other genres as well, publishing over her half-century career 20 novels (including the five that make up the Earthsea series), 13 children's books, several translations and numerous collections of short stories, poetry and essays. Her books were translated into 40 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., Le Guin was the daughter of two anthropologists, a background that clearly influenced her writing and world view -- her books teem with richly detailed, coherent fictional cultures and express an open-minded, compassionate and fearless curiosity toward the other, whomever or whatever that other might be.

She earned degrees in literature from Radcliffe and Columbia, married historian Charles Le Guin and raised their three children in Portland. She had been writing since childhood and began to publish short stories in the early 1960s. After several other novels, she gained fame with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards and established her as a major voice -- and a revolutionary one -- in science fiction, then very much a male-dominated genre.

Le Guin received the National Book Foundation's lifetime-achievement award, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, in 2014 and accepted it with a damn-the-torpedoes speech that decried the emphasis in publishing of profit over art: "I have had a long career and a good one," she said. "Here at the end of it, I really don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river."

The Left Hand of Darkness was the first book of hers that I read, during my sophomore year of college, just a couple of years after its publication.

I had read science fiction and fantasy before that: multiple readings of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic, of course, plus irascible satirist Harlan Ellison and cheesetastic macho pulp like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books.

The Left Hand of Darkness was something entirely different. The novel is the story of Genly Ai, a human envoy who travels to another planet called Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join a planetary confederation.

The people of Gethen are ambisexual: Sexually latent most of the time, they become either male or female for two days each month. Any individual can be either sex at different times. That gender fluidity has enormous influence on the nature of their society. As Le Guin said in one interview, "I eliminated gender to find out what was left."

She called the book a "thought experiment"; for my 19-year-old self, educated mostly in Catholic schools, just beginning to get a grasp on feminism, living in an era when anything other than by-the-rules heterosexuality was barely whispered about, it was a mind blower. It's hard even to imagine today how much.

I went on to teach the book in college classes during the '70s and early '80s, hoping to blow a few more minds, and to return to Le Guin's books from time to time, always with delight. I was reading No Time to Spare when news came of her death.

Compiled from selected posts to her blog over the last decade or so, it's clearly a farewell, a fond last look at a world she loved, but not without its sharp edges.

She engages the subject of aging head-on in "The Sissy Strikes Back," its title a jab at the notion that "old age isn't for sissies" and the fond delusion that we can avoid its effects by means medical, surgical, dietary or whatever: "If I'm ninety and believe I'm forty-five, I'm headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub."

Aging is particularly tough, she notes in anthropological fashion, in a culture where the generations tend to self-segregate: "Kids who haven't lived with geezers don't know what they are. So it is that old men come to learn the invisibility women learned twenty or thirty years earlier. The kids on the street don't see you."

Several essays take up literary topics, like one called "Would You Please F---ing Stop?" that traces the recent history of naughty language in literature, from forbidden to pervasive. It gives her an opportunity to quote this delicious story: "Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead was forced to use the euphemistic invention fugging, giving Dorothy Parker the chance, which naturally she didn't miss, of cooing at him, 'Oh, are you the young man who doesn't know how to spell f---?'?"

Le Guin remained a feminist standard-bearer, and in one essay she writes astutely about how female writers have been devalued for qualities exalted in male ones, focusing on the judgments of Virginia Woolf as mentally ill. "Marcel Proust's limitations and his neuroticism were at least as notable as hers," she writes. "But that Proust needed not only a room of his own but a cork-lined one is taken as proof he was a genius. That Woolf heard the birds singing in Greek shows only that she was a sick woman."

The book's last few essays come, literally, down to earth, to Le Guin finding solace and inspiration in nature. "The Lynx" grows out of her encounters with a captive lynx at the Oregon High Desert Museum, a magnificent, dignified and heartbreaking creature whose utter disregard for humans evokes a meditation on community and solitude, on how we deny not only the true natures of other creatures but our own.

The last essay, "Notes From a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert," is pure, crystalline description, Le Guin deploying "my observing and delighted eyes" upon peacocks and ravens, horses and sunrise light -- thinking, as this book's title says, about what matters.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.