URSULA LE GUIN was a world-builder. Her creations had as much solidity as any realist fiction, although her work could usually be found on the science-fiction shelves. She understood that story was about possibility. Her writing never ceased to investigate how societies might be structured if we threw away the expectation that things had always been this way, and could be no other. 

“Rocannan’s World” was her first science-fiction novel, published in 1966, but it was “A Wizard of Earthsea” (1968) which first brought her great acclaim. It follows Ged, a young mage of Earthsea—an archipelagic country reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest—who discovers his true powers, and the cost of those powers, when he attends a school for wizards. It was the first of five novels in the “Earthsea Cycle”, now considered cornerstones of fantasy children’s literature, though Ms Le Guin knew that the young imagination could be just as sophisticated at that of adults (and often more receptive). In later years some would argue that a certain British writer copied this idea for a magical academy; Ms Le Guin herself never made that claim. “She didn’t copy anything,” she wrote of J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. “Her book, in fact, could hardly be more different from mine, in style, spirit, everything. The only thing that rankles me is her apparent reluctance to admit that she ever learned anything from other writers.”

From the beginning of her career she produced work in a steady stream—novels as well as short stories, poems, essays and criticism. In 1969 came “The Left Hand of Darkness” a novel as timely now as it was when it first appeared thanks to its themes of international cooperation, internecine warfare, political wrangling, the effect of climate on society and, most notably, gender roles. Genly Ai, the protagonist, is an envoy sent from Earth to the chilly planet of Gethen. In Ms Le Guin’s vision, Earth is now a world of the Ekumen, a loose confederation of planets; it is Genly Ai’s mission to convince the Gethenians to join this organisation. What is most striking about Gethen is that its otherwise human inhabitants are genderless, neither one biological sex nor the other. Each being is capable, at different times in their life, of being mother or father to a child, or taking on any role in this society. But that does not mean it is an ideal culture, merely one with different challenges. There’s no getting away from human nature, whatever shape that nature takes. Both Ms Le Guin’s parents, Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Quinn Kroeber, were eminent anthropologists: questioning what constituted the idea of society was in her blood.

“The Left Hand of Darkness” won the Hugo Award—a prestigious prize for science fiction and fantasy novels—and her work continued to be celebrated throughout her life. Most notably Ms Le Guin was one of the few authors whose books were published by the prestigious Library of America series during her lifetime. In 2014 she was given the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards. Accepting the honour, she spoke passionately to the authors, and readers, of the future. “Hard times are coming,” she said, “when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” 

That larger reality was always in her sights. She never ceased expanding her own boundaries, and she was resistant to the idea that any genre was less valuable or significant than any other. “All fiction is metaphor,” she wrote. “Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them.” In books such as “The Lathe of Heaven” (1971), “The Dispossessed” (1974) and “The Word for World Is Forest” (1976), her work offered enduring reflections on systems of government, capitalism and colonisation, as well as the development—and disintegration—of societies.

But she was content to be Earth-bound, too. In 2008 she published “Lavinia”, a novel based on the final books of the “Aeneid” but stretching beyond Virgil’s tale. Next year Copper Canyon Press will publish “So Far So Good”, her final collection of poems. Margaret Atwood, another writer whose work transcends the boundaries of genre, has called her “one of the literary greats of the 20th century”. 

Sometimes Ms Le Guin could seem pessimistic about the fix into which humankind seems to have got itself: a world brutally divided between haves and have-nots, threatened by melting ice and rising seas. But she knew too that hope might come from a human quality so finely expressed in her own body of work. “Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”