In her 2009 essay “On the Frontier,” Ursula K. Le Guin took stock of an abstraction endemic to both the American West, where she was raised, and her chosen genre of science fiction. Interplanetary wars, galaxy-spanning empires, brave men bounding toward their next conquest — all this action rests on a notion of the future as inchoate, waiting to be made. But that’s never been true, she argued, in America or her fiction. “The future is already full,” she wrote. “It is much older and larger than our present, and we are the aliens in it.”
Le Guin (1929-2018) grew up in an academic family in Berkeley, Calif. She found Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching in her father’s library as a child, and remained deeply moved by Taoist principles throughout her life. She began publishing science fiction in genre magazines in the early 1960s, as a mother and committed pacifist in Portland, Ore., where she lived for more than 50 years.
Throughout her career Le Guin wrote novels and short stories as well as criticism, poetry, translation, children’s books and essays. But she always came back to science fiction and fantasy, which she found to be just as literary as realism. It could even be more potent, she thought, particularly when trying “to regain the knowledge — that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.”
This knowledge is the connective thread of Le Guin’s work. Her powerful imagination turned hypothetical elsewheres into vivid worlds governed by forces of nature, technology, gender, race and class a far cry from our own. By 1975, when she became the first author to have had multiple novels win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, she had changed science fiction forever.
The world changed Le Guin back. She underwent a feminist awakening amid the movement’s second wave. In the 1980s she took a break from Earthsea and the Hainish Universe, her two most expansive and celebrated worlds, as she pushed her literary bounds. She wrote from a more consciously gendered perspective; she wrote a rare realistic novel set on the Oregon coast. In the 1990s she returned to Earthsea and the Hainish Universe with fresh eyes, 20 years after she created them.
For Le Guin, writing was a “willingness to relinquish control, an act of trust.” Her universes were born of the belief that her imaginative instincts would take her where she needed to go — out among her fellow aliens and the stars.
Let’s get started.
I want to read what made her famous.
I’m cheating a little, because “The Books of Earthsea” is a series. (In my defense, all six books are available in one illustrated edition.) Set on a world held together by water and magic, the first book, “A Wizard of Earthsea” (1968), follows a young, brown-skinned boy named Ged on the mountainous island of Gont who learns he can change the weather. He is brought to a great school of sorcery, where he discovers the strength of his powers far before he gains the wisdom to use them well. After a terrible accident in which he releases a deathly shadow into the world, Ged must sail the seas to find and face it.
The rest of the series follows Ged and Tenar, a white-skinned teenage priestess from the brutal Kargad islands introduced in the second book, “The Tombs of Atuan” (1970), as their paths intersect and Earthsea becomes imperiled.
The first three books were written in the 1960s and ’70s after a publisher asked Le Guin to create a fantasy for teenagers. (They are satisfying, deep and complex for adults, too. As Le Guin writes in the illustrated edition introduction, “The notion that fantasy is only for the immature rises from an obstinate misunderstanding of both maturity and the imagination.”)
She wrote the later three novels in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the difference between her treatment of Tenar’s character especially is palpable. The constant, of course, is the sea.
I’m here for the planets and aliens.
On the planet Gethen in the middle of an ice age, fixed sex does not exist. Gethenians spend most of their lives in an asexual, androgynous state, except for the one week a month when they sprout differentiated organs and copulate. The organs can be different each time; “the mother of several children can be the father of several more.”
Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle is a group of seven novels structured around the Ekumen League, an intergalactic organization based on the planet Hain, whose descendants populated the other worlds. The group sends envoys to observe those worlds, hoping to one day integrate them into the league for trade and knowledge.
Le Guin insisted that the cycle is only a loosely related grouping and can be read in any order. I’d start with “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969), her first novel to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two biggest honors of the genre.
Though Genly Ai, the scout sent to understand Gethenians, is trying his best, he cannot grasp such a different conception of gender. His mistrust of the feminine on a planet where it does not exist simmers underneath his diplomacy and good-faith attempts to make alliances amid the planet’s complex politics. One of the great achievements of this novel is the quiet misogyny that seeps into his narration.
As Gethen comes to the brink of what might become its first civil war, Genly gets stuck with a fallen lord whom he cannot bring himself to trust. But the two must rely on each other when they’re forced to flee together. As they traverse the desolate Gobrin ice sheet (a journey that inspires some of the most magnificent descriptions of the cold I have ever read), it’s Genly who begins to crack.
How about something with a philosophical bent?
Long ago, Odonians led a revolution on the planet Urras. Governments couldn’t crush it, and instead they struck a deal — the revolutionaries could live out Odo’s teachings on the moon. So to Anarres they went.
The subtitle of “The Dispossessed” (1974) is “An Ambiguous Utopia,” and it is Le Guin’s most philosophical novel. Set in the Hainish Universe before the advent of intergalactic real-time communication — a key feature of the other six novels — it follows the physicist Shevek, who has grown up in the anarchist society on Anarres. (Anarchism here refers to a society organized horizontally, with no enforcing power.)
Generations after Odo’s revolution, Shevek becomes the first Anarresti to return to Urras. He has reached an impasse with an equation in temporal physics after getting farther than anyone else on Anarres, and needs to collaborate with thinkers on the much older parent planet to get to the next stage. The novel flips back and forth between Shevek’s mostly happy life growing up on Anarres, devoid of the pains of inequality but full of those that make us human, and his present reality adapting to the unequal but lavish world that produced the Odonians.
“The Dispossessed” is a study of character, ideology and the constant of change. “You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again,” reads the simplest statement of Shevek’s General Temporal Theory, but he makes sure to correct himself. “You can go home again,” he notes, “so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.”
I like my fiction in short bursts.
If you’re a bit of a commitment-phobe, relatively new to science fiction or just short on time, try Le Guin’s acclaimed story collection “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters” (1975), which assembles 17 stories written over the course of a decade. It includes “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” arguably Le Guin’s most famous work of short fiction, an allegory about a town whose happiness depends on the suffering of a single child. It also includes stories set on all three worlds mentioned above.
I care about the environment.
On a densely vegetated planet inhabited by forest-dwelling people, the Terrans have come to plunder. In “The Word for World Is Forest” (1976), a colonial administration distantly overseen by the Ekumen but led by military forces from Earth has christened the planet “New Tahiti” and begun logging the forest. (Back on Earth, whose resources have been sorely depleted, wood goes for the price of gold.) And the Terrans have enslaved a number of the forest dwellers, whom they call “creechies.”
The story follows Captain Davidson, the head of one of the outposts, a creechie-hater and self-described “Old Conquistador”; Luyobov, a sympathetic scientist studying the creechies who has assured colonial officers they have no concept of murder; and Selver, a formerly enslaved forest dweller who escapes to warn his people that, for the first time, they are experiencing an existential threat.
Written during the Vietnam War, this is one of Le Guin’s more explicit commentaries on American militarism and environmental degradation. Its relevance hasn’t decreased in our time of climate catastrophe and gun violence. New Tahiti’s jungles are a deeply interconnected system with few visible defenses. But amid their bluster, bravado and faith in their weapons — “they were more protective of their machines than of their bodies,” Selver observes — Davidson and his men overlook the forest dwellers’ greatest power.
I worry about the environment. Also, I have thoughts on therapy.
“The Lathe of Heaven” (1971) is a hallucinatory stand-alone novel centered on what’s certainly in the running for the most screwed up therapist-patient relationship of all time.
In a densely populated, highly bureaucratic Portland, Ore., George Orr gets caught using someone else’s prescription for sleep medicine. Although Orr is reasonably sane, his excuse sounds crazy: He’s terrified to sleep because the content of his dreams can change the real world.
The authorities send Orr to mandatory therapy, where he meets the illustrious Dr. Haber — skilled in hypnosis, the inventor of a machine that puts you to sleep on command and owner of the world’s largest god complex. It’s a wicked combination. Orr has no desire to change the world this way and desperately wants Haber to help him stop dreaming; Haber, for all his psychological prowess, cannot understand a man who does not seek to exert his will. He decides to use his patient’s potent but inexact power to make and remake what he sees as the “good” world.
Plagues flourish. Rivers dry up. Mount Hood erupts and un-erupts. Aliens arrive. By the end of Orr and Haber’s maddening clash, you’re left wondering whether you, the reader, were the crazy one all along.
Tell me more about Le Guin’s feminism.
I’ll let her do it herself, in the only nonfiction book on this list. “Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places” (1989) is a compilation of adapted talks, essays and reviews. Though she has at least one other collection analyzing gender, this is comprehensive because it situates the subject among her thoughts on broader social responsibility and literature, and applies it to works by writers including C.S. Lewis, Italo Calvino and Doris Lessing.
Highlights include: “Is Gender Necessary [Redux],” in which Le Guin revisits and updates her position, in response to feminist critics, on using the pronoun “he” for the androgynous Gethenians in “The Left Hand of Darkness”; and “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” the famous essay in which she critiques hero narratives. Le Guin sees conflict and its resolution as only one structure of many that can fuel a story, and far from the most interesting one. If fiction is about “how people relate to everything else,” it must take seriously the wide breadth of actions and feelings generated by life simply going on. As such, narrative power “cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.” It sounds simple, but its implications are vast, and beautiful.
Loosen my grip on reality, please. Just a little.
Be careful what you wish for. “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” (1994) includes three interlinked stories that pick up with the Hainish universe reeling from a breakthrough in physics, Churten theory, which allows individuals to travel faster than the speed of light.
But the details are not yet fully understood. These journeys often wildly distort the fabric of the travelers’ reality; they might transport them in time instead of space, or render them unrecognizable or uncommunicable. So all three stories are also metafictional, about what it means to tell a story in the first place.
The collection (which is sadly out of print, though used copies are available and many of the stories appear in various collections), includes five other stories ranging in subject from a couple who encounter aliens in Australia to an instrument that cannot be heard. But the Churten stories strike deepest. The once-lonely narrator of the title story laments that the act of retelling is our only hope afloat on the river of time, “but in the great rapids and the winding shallows, no boat is safe.”
I suspect the feeling I have, of gratitude for my feet planted on the ground, is what Le Guin intended.