PORTLAND, Ore. — Like artisans who mark their boutiques with insignias of their craft, Ursula Le Guin has nailed up a gargoyle high in her entrance hall. A replica of a demon from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the fiend was purchased in Paris where the writer and her husband married, and for 26 years it has leered down on the household where fantasy is created.
Yet Le Guin is not a sorceress of the phantasmagoric, nor a mind-boggler in the vein of a Jules Verne. The 56-year-old novelist has blithely bounced from planet to planet and, in her Hainish cycle, brought into being a storybook universe. But in a field largely dominated by mimics and gimmicks, Le Guin has honed a reputation as a thoughtful science-fiction writer.
She won the National Book Award with "The Farthest Shore" in 1972, and several times has garnered science fiction's two top honors, the Nebula and the Hugo awards. Her short fantasies also have appeared in "The New Yorker."
Le Guin's lastest book, "Always Coming Home," published this month by Harper & Row, has been anticipated as her magnum opus. After spinning out a book a year, Le Guin has spent four years piecing together this 15th effort, which she describes as "an archeology of the future."
FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 27, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of writer Ursula Le Guin's father, noted anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber, was misspelled in Elizabeth Venant's Oct. 20 article.
In it she has created the ethnology of a future Californian people--their language, customs, recipes. The book comes packaged with a cassette of the music, poetry and songs of the tribe and includes drawings of artifacts and plants by an archeological artist.
"This time I really cut loose," says Le Guin, sitting on one of the verandas that rim her wood-frame house. Instead of slipping in an invented people, Le Guin has made their culture the background bulk for a slender narration and "one of the major functions of the book."
"It wasn't a process of invention," she insists, " but a process of discovery. You find a broken piece of pottery and you know it fits the pot."
For Le Guin aficionados, this more complete creation of a society will not likely be surprising. Le Guin is the daughter of noted anthropologist, Alfred L. Kroeger, a primary force in the study and recording of American Indian life. In Berkeley, where Le Guin was raised, and at the family's Napa Valley summer ranch, the author grew up with virtual "Indian uncles" and accumulated an oral tradition through tales told around evening fires. She learned traditions and lore, and remembers watching in awe as one "Indian uncle" doused himself in a patch of poison oak, appearing to prove beyond all childish doubt that native Americans are immune to the pale face's poisonous itch.
In the early part of the century a northern Californian Indian surrendered himself to civilization after a lifetime at bay from Indian wars he thought still raging, and in 1961, Le Guin's mother, Theodora, published his life in the best-selling book, "Ishi in Two Worlds."
The Kesh, Le Guin's fictional people, are largely modeled after native Americans. They are agrarian, egalitarian and pacifist, inhabiting the Napa Valley some time in the future, following a nuclear holocaust.
Although the Kesh are not a utopian society, they do represent an ideal of sorts. "The place I love best is the Napa Valley where I've gone just about every year of my life. I wanted to celebrate this piece of earth," says Le Guin.
Following a myriad of galactic environments, the book also represents a personal homecoming for Le Guin. "These are my people. And this place I'm writing about is my home," she says, speaking both literally and metaphorically. "It has been my home all my life. Home is a strange concept. A lot of Americans don't have homes or don't think about them very much. But everybody understands the meaning and has a kind of nostalgia for it."
The home where Le Guin lives with her family could be a slice of idealized Americana. A rambling, roomy house, set in the hills above the Willamette River, it is complete with a flower garden and picket fence. Juggling feminism and domesticity, Le Guin has raised three children here and, often working "in odd moments and corners," has built a body of works that includes tales for adolescents and one children's book.
A short, sturdy woman with a boyish bob, she is a daughter of academe. She was graduated from Radcliffe College, took a master's degree in French and Italian literature from Columbia University and traveled to Paris as a Fulbright scholar. Her three brothers and her husband, Charles Le Guin, are all university professors. It is little wonder that the author takes poorly to what she calls "the technological fix" of the sci-fi market.