Ursula Le Guin has just turned 80 and is going strong. But if she decided to retire this instant it would be as a writer whose legacy to imaginative fiction would be hard for anyone, and I mean anyone, to beat. I would expect little rational argument against Le Guin being the most significant writer of fantastic fiction still working today.
This reputation was launched with the 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. From the onset it established what would be the strong themes in almost all her work, the exploration of sociology, anthropology, ecology and sexual identity, often in the context of depicting details of life and living in alternate cultures.
Le Guin's next big soft science novel comfortably sits in almost every critic's top 100 works of the speculative. The Lathe of Heaven (1971) explored the territory of the metaphysical telling of a man who can alter reality through his dreams. It has been adapted to film twice.
Within 1974 she published what would become an essential text in almost every academic course on science fiction and speculative writing. The Dispossessed is a flagship on the arguments of utopia and dystopia and pitting the two together. The ideas are weighed against each other with complexity and with rich imagination. It is one of the most important works in the field.
Now, if you are already familiar with Le Guin then you know I've been omitting a very important part of her career, she is the author of the Earthsea saga. Began in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea this series of young teen fantasies has become one of the most beloved sagas close behind Narnia and Middle-Earth. And sure, J K Rowling over-shadows it these days but there's little guarantee that Harry Potter will still be around in a hundred years while Earthsea will certainly be. These books are true classics of young adult literature.
This high standing as a master of letters is not just for the above but as much for the rest of her vast library of acclaimed works, including well over twenty novels and novellas, including the lauded The Word for World is Forest, ten collections of stories, six books of essays, six books of poetry, more than a dozen children's books and even a rendition of the Tao Te Ching. All this and she is the subject of endless PhDs, has been translated in countless number of languages, not to mention all the multi-media adaptations, makes me think she is a worthy contender for a Nobel.
However, I believe she'll never get one. Why? Because she is too closely associated with that gutter genre called science fiction. And despite her works being studied at universities and being the favourites of major writers and artists throughout the decades the tainted mud of that genre term means she'll never receive that ultimate recognition.
Perhaps this is why she is so vocal when a critic puts down the SF label and she has made public comments about fantastic writings that distant themselves from being referred to as science fiction. Margaret Atwood's future tales and Cormac McCarthy's The Road easily come to mind. Mind you, Le Guin isn't shy when expressing her views.
She was harsh in her opinion of the Earthsea mini-series and expressed quite mixed feelings over the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Tales of Earthsea. Personally, on the Ghibli, I have some reservations over the narrative structure but I certainly didn't mind it.
Anyway, when the time comes Ursula Le Guin will just have to rest her laurels on, amongst other things, her five Hugos, six Nebulas, nineteen Locus Awards, being made a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, given the status of Living Legend by Library of Congress.
But she isn't resting yet. Who knows what else will come from the hard working Le Guin and what other acclaims she'll garner. Even her most recent, Lavinia (2008), is being praised for its feminist retelling of Virgil's Aeneid by a character that never spoke a word in the original. But like I said at the beginning; if nothing more was to come from Ursula Le Guin we have already a monumental body of work that is ever-growing in value to literature and the imagination. And in all understanding will keep growing for centuries to come.