Original cover art for Le Guin sci-fi novel goes on sale

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 27, 2023
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Mill Valley bookseller Mark Funke holds the original cover artwork for Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
Mill Valley bookseller Mark Funke holds the original cover artwork for Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

Three days after the death of Ursula K. Le Guin on January 22, 2018, Bay Area Reporter television columnist and reporter Victoria Brownworth recalled interviewing the groundbreaking science fiction author in a tribute she penned for Lambda Literary. She praised Le Guin for creating worlds in her books where "there was only strength in being female and gender non-conforming."

Of Le Guin's award-winning 1969 novel "The Left Hand of Darkness," Brownworth noted she had envisioned "a world beyond gender — a world in which gender is so fluid among the ambisexual Gethenian inhabitants of the planet Winter, it is not needed for survival or even convenience." The book was one of the first science fiction titles to explore androgyny and became a masterpiece in the genre.

First published in paperback by Ace Books, the novel sported cover art by award-winning artists and biracial couple Leo and Diane Dillon. Their painting featured profiles of the book's protagonists in the left bottom corner looking off into the distance. Surrounding the pair is a blue and white celestial-like scene with what appears to be a brown planet and a spaceship hovering above.

(Leo Dillon, of Trinidadian descent, died in 2012. He was the first African American to win the prestigious Randolph Caldecott Medal for illustrators of children's books, while the Dillons were the only consecutive winners of the award, having received the honor in 1976 and 1977.)

The Dillons' original 17 and 1/4 by 13 inches acrylic painting is now being offered for sale for the first time at the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America global book fair taking place in San Francisco in early February. The asking price is $20,000.

"It is literally unique. This is it, the original and not a print," said Mark Funke, a rare bookseller who lives in Mill Valley where his business is also located.

Scouting out shops in the East Bay several years ago looking for new material to sell, Funke had received a tip about the sale of various items from a home in the Oakland hills. It led him to receive an invite from the executor of the estate to come to the house.

To his amazement, Funke had stumbled onto the archives of three individuals involved in the world of science fiction writing. One was the late Terry Carr, an editor at Ace Books who published the works of Le Guin and other sci-fi authors and died in 1987. While most of Carr's personal papers had gone to UC Riverside, Funke found several boxes still in the house and acquired them.

"Carol inherited everything," said Funke.

He was referring to Carr's wife, Carol Carr, herself a sci-fi writer, who would later marry fellow sci-fi author and fanzine collector Robert Lichtman. She passed away in 2021, followed by Lichtman a year later.

"I come to the house and find 86 boxes of various kinds of items," Funke recalled in a phone interview with the B.A.R. "There were drafts, zines, anything imaginable under the sun relating to science fiction by these three people. I bought it all."

Their children had decided to put their parents' home up for sale.

"They wanted everything out of the house," recalled Funke, who left a 20-year legal career in Seattle a decade ago and entered the book trade.

Not for sale at the time was the Dillons' original cover illustration art for Le Guin's novel. (She had sent Carr a copy of the manuscript unsolicited with a letter addressed to a Ms. Carr, mistaking his first name to be that of a woman's, said Funke.)

According to the marketing guide Funke created for the sale of the artwork, Ace Books had gifted it to Carr in commemoration of the book's publication success. The Carr family has continuously owned it ever since and had it prominently hung in its former East Bay home.

Funke is now handling its sale on behalf of the Carr and Lichtman Estate. He will have it available on a first-come, first-served basis at his booth at the book fair.

"I am pricing it high for the artists but, I think, reasonable for it being Le Guin's most famous novel. She won awards for it, and it ratcheted her up to the greats of science fiction," said Funke. "It's got very topical content; this idea of the planet Gethen and ambisexual individuals. I just think it is fascinating and a very active topic in today's discussion."

In a statement to the B.A.R. about the sale, the executor for the family estate said, "The Carr-Lichtman family has treasured this artwork for over 50 years and now it is time to find a new owner who will cherish this remarkable work of science fiction publishing history for the next 50 years."

Funke said the artwork is an ideal piece for a science fiction collector looking to own a singular item related to the first edition of Le Guin's novel.

"If you own it then no one else can have it. That is pretty cool," he said.

It may also be of interest to a collecting institution or a research library, said Funke, to hang on its walls as a way to draw people in or excite students about the science fiction genre.

"They could have this as, in essence, a presentation piece at the entrance," he said, adding it could be a conversation starter with students or others "for why you should be excited about researching science fiction."

The 56th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will take place February 9-11 at Pier 27, the cruise ship terminal on The Embarcadero along San Francisco's bayside waterfront. For more information, visit its website at abaa.org/cabookfair.

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