The New Yorker recently published a charming interview by Julie Phillips of Ursula K. Le Guin. It described her upbringing in a house full of myth and story headed by her father the great anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, her difficult relationship with Radcliffe where she got a degree in French, and her brilliant spurt of work starting in 1966 at age 37 with “A Wizard of Earthsea”, and extending over the next 8 years to the seminal works “The Left Hand of Darkness”, “The Lathe of Heaven”, “The Farthest Shore” and “The Dispossessed”. She’s now 87 and as sharp as ever, tangling with Amazon over monopoly and Google over the digitization of literature.
“A Wizard of Earthsea” made a particular impression on me when I read it at age 13. It starts with the standard SF trope of the Big Zoom. That’s where a young person from a humdrum background comes to realize over the course of the story just how big and wonderful the world actually is. That’s the plot of Heinlein juveniles like “Have Space Suit – Will Travel”, whose title alone tells you what’s going to happen. Usually those stories have the protagonist going from misunderstood loner to reaching their proper place in the world, which makes them highly satisfying to young fans. In Wizard, the young hero Ged does in fact become Archmage of Earthsea, but also realizes how circumscribed his vast power must be. Even at age 13, I realized that Le Guin was working at a whole different level than most SF authors.
In reading about her elsewhere, I discovered a remarkable thing – she has won more of the top awards in SF, the Hugo and Nebula for best novel, than any other author except Lois McMaster Bujold. They’re both tied at 6. Le Guin won the Hugo and Nebula for “The Left Hand of Darkness” in 1970, both again for “The Disposessed” in 1974, and Nebulas for “Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea” (1990) and “Powers” (2008). Bujold won the Hugo for “The Vor Game” (1991), “Barrayar” (1992), “Mirror Dance” (1995) and “Paladin of Souls” (2004), which also won the Nebula. She also won a Nebula for “Falling Free” in 1988.
Connie Willis then comes in at 5 best novel awards with 3 Hugos and 2 Nebulas, but she has won more total awards, 18, than anyone else. Le Guin is tied for second with Harlan Ellison at 11. Joe Haldeman and Robert Heinlein also have 5 Best Novel awards, although Heinlein’s were mainly before the Nebulas existed.
By this most basic measure, then, Le Guin, Bujold, and Willis are the best living SF writers. Over the last 20 years, 8 of the Hugo Best Novel winners have been women, and 11 of the Nebula winners. For a field mainly known for rockets, rayguns, and boldly going where no man has gone before, it has become quite egalitarian.