Funded by over 3,000 fans via Kickstarter in March 2016, production of director Arwen Curry’s documentary Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin was almost completed when the death of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin in January 2018 provoked a response equally intellectual and emotional in the obituaries and testimonials which followed, so deep was her bond with her readers.
A grandmaster of science fiction, influential in her field, admired by critics both within the genre and in the wider realm of literature, how long does it take to come to know someone in all their shapes and moods, a person who grows and changes into something new even as they begin to reveal themselves?
To sum up such a person in little over an hour is the challenge Ms Curry has taken on, what was to have been an examination and celebration of the work and achievements of the estimable Ms Le Guin now also standing as a summation of her career, a fond reflection on a life well lived now shared with the world.
Currently playing the festival circuit including a screening at the Glasgow Youth Film Festival, Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin was made with the full collaboration of the subject and so is principally told through her own words in multiple interviews and public appearances, both conducted for the film and from deep in the archives, as well as readings of passages from her works accompanied by beautifully animated illustrations.
The different novels presented in different styles, this is in keeping with how Le Guin’s writing evolved through her career from her early rejections, all recognising that she had talent but regretfully stating that there was no current market for her stories, to her admission that her first published stories emulated the “masculine default” of a genre then dominated by such as Asimov and Heinlein before her growing confidence blossomed to the works for which she is now best known.
With an extended exploration of her childhood and family, what might seem a digression on the part of Curry is essential to understanding how Le Guin’s worldview was shaped, opening her mind to other ways of being which might not be immediately apparent to those who have been conditioned or indoctrinated simply by immersion in a single culture.
Her parents the noted anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer Theodora Kroeber who crafted his research into prose, this would feed into Le Guin’s later work which would consider alternatives to violence and exploitation: “My mother’s books opened many people’s eyes including my own to the appalling history of the white conquest of California.”
The Left Hand of Darkness a Hugo and Nebula award winner and The Dispossessed the winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, her examinations of gender and societies broke ground in science fiction and brought her to a wider audience as well as giving her recognition as a woman writing in the field, in her own words something once thought of as akin to a mythological creature such as the unicorn.
Happily married with three children and spending her mornings writing and her afternoons engaged in housework, Le Guin was aware that she did not fit the traditional image of a feminist that was expected of a writer who challenged the “narrow cultural vision of white male science fiction writers,” but that unwavering sense of self led her to question hierarchies others did not even perceive.
Enormously respected by her peers, there are affectionate and informative contributions from Samuel Delany, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, China Miéville and Vonda N McIntyre, many of whom had long associations and friendships with Le Guin and if the viewer feels they never really get to know her perhaps it is because there is too much of her to fit in this insufficient hour and they should instead look to the enduring words and worlds of her books