A Beginner’s Guide to Ursula Le Guin
UPDATE (Jan. 23, 2018): News reports today confirmed that Ursula Le Guin died at the age of 88. Godspeed.
It’s hard, bordering on impossible, to pick a favorite writer, but if pressed, I would pick Ursula Le Guin seven days a week. Luckily for all of humanity, I see her getting just a fraction of the props she richly deserves, possibly because people who grew up reading her wonderful books are old enough to be in charge of more things. She was honored at last year’s National Book Awards; check out her powerful speech on the duty of authors and publishers to stand for art over profit. It killed.
Le Guin mostly writes science fiction and fantasy, which not everyone is up for reading, but I urge you to abandon those limitations. More dauntingly, her back catalog is jam-packed with novels, novellas and short stories — well over 50 published works. To help you make sense of it all, below is a short guide to her finest, most moving and most delightful books, in no particular order.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Le Guin’s best known and most critically-acclaimed work, “The Left Hand of Darkness” is the story of an alien world locked in permanent winter and inhabited by genderless people who assume either male or female sexuality for brief periods. As a result, their culture — not distorted by sexism and misogyny — looks very different from ours. The book is the story of an envoy from our world and his many failed attempts to understand the politics and subterranean social codes at work around him.
Discussing the book in an essay on Tor.com, Jo Walton wrote:
The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that changed the world, so that reading it now, in the world it helped grow, it isn’t possible to have the same experience as reading it in the world it was written in and for.
(To Walton’s point, when you read the book, remember that Le Guin wrote “The Left Hand of Darkness” in 1969, which makes her treatment of gender and culture all the more radical.)
But “The Left Hand of Darkness” wouldn’t be as beloved and iconic as it is if it were just a feminist thought experiment. It’s also a story of a complex friendship (touched briefly and complicatedly by sexual attraction), a story about politics and power, and an ice-age adventure story.
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
Because they were locked in a publishing ghetto, a lot of science fiction writers back in the day wrote primarily short stories, rather than novels. Le Guin is excellent in the short story form. “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”, first published in 1975, is remarkable for how many now-classic stories it includes, such as “The Day Before the Revolution” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, both of which won science fiction’s highest critical honors, and the latter of of which probably appeared in your high school literature textbook.
This collection also includes short stories that were the seeds of two of her most famous works — “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “A Wizard of Earthsea”. These are more fun to come to after the fact, so save this one until you’re a few books in to your inevitable Le Guin fandom.
The Birthday of the World
Published later in her career (2002), the stories in this collection make an outstanding introduction to Le Guin’s work, plus an excellent overview of her reckoning as a mature writer with some of her recurring themes: the complexity and fluidity of human sexuality and family relationships, the ways our early social environments irrevocably shape us, and the terrible brutality — both physical and emotional — of colonialism. But, you know, with some weird sci-fi stuff to make it less heavy, like alien civilizations, weirdly plausible human family arrangements and the implications of life aboard generation ships.
(When I get on a high horse about science fiction as literature, my go-to is power of science fiction as metaphor — taking a startling or far-fetched premise and examining its affects on individual, unique human beings. Le Guin is probably the greatest living practitioner of that.)
A Wizard of Earthsea
Almost certainly her best-loved book, “A Wizard of Earthsea” is the story of a young man born with powerful but untrained magical abilities and his coming-of-age in a world of vast seas and tiny, scattered islands. Classified today as a young adult novel by the inexorable demands of book marketers, “A Wizard of Earthsea” certainly fits alongside the Harry Potter books and the Chronicles of Narnia in terms of subject matter and complexity. It even has sequels.
But if I ran the world, I would take a shiny new paperback copy of this book and press it into the hands of every bright-eyed 14-year-old who had just finished any of the modern dystopian fantasies or heroic trilogies that cover the bookstore and library shelves. “Here,” I’d say. “Read this! You will love this. It is like the thing you already love, but darker and truer.” (Except probably I wouldn’t say that last part, because it sounds crazy.)
In “A Wizard of Earthsea”, Le Guin’s hero, the taciturn, stubborn young wizard Ged, does fight battles and dragons and cast spells, but the real story is about his coming to terms with the consequences of a terrible decision he made as an adolescent, when his pride and insecurity led him to unleash a dark power — a literal shadow — on the world, one that better, older and wiser men suffered to contain. I’ve read this book a dozen or more times, but when, deep into the story, Ged stops running from the shadow and, alone on the open sea, turns around to chase it instead, my heart still skips a beat, no joke.
Don’t take my word for it. Take David Mitchell’s.
In much of her work, Le Guin’s themes are capitalism, colonialism and the ugly ways that structural power imbalances between groups distort our humanity. She is, of course, firmly on the side of the angels and revolutionaries, but her writing isn’t propaganda.
“The Dispossessed” is the story of Shevek, a physicist born into an purely democratic anarchist society with — for the most part — no ownership, no consumerism, no sexism, ageism or racism. It’s also a closed and troubled society — situated on a desolate moon populated entirely by people whose parents and grandparents were exiled there by the rulers of the wealthier, more populous and vastly more powerful planet below.
Understanding that the revolutionary force that founded his world is spent and rapidly calcifying — and missing the influx of new ideas that he yearns for as a scientist — Shevek embarks on an unprecedented journey to his ancestral planet, where he has to contend with social, economic and political ideas he can barely comprehend — and whose practitioners can barely comprehend him.
“The Dispossessed” is a science fiction novel in the truest and most classic sense — a story of ideas (What if *this* were true? And what if *this thing* came to be? What would people do? How would our world be different?). But first and foremost, it is a story. Le Guin doesn’t write books about people sitting in rooms and thinking about their feelings. Her characters set off on doomed journeys, argue, fall in love, run from trouble, get knocked out, act badly and take noble stands.
One note of warning. Plenty of otherwise serious readers are, still, sadly, put off by the trappings of the fantastic. One whiff of dragons or spaceships and they’re out. One of the many reasons I love Le Guin is her relentless championing of genre fiction — the fantastic is, after all, our oldest mode of storytelling and narrative — but she’s not a hard-ass about it. The suspension of disbelief required to enter into any of her worlds is pretty mild. After a chapter or two, you probably won’t even notice.
Sometimes as I am falling asleep in a dark, quiet room I have for a moment a great and treasurable illusion of the past. The wall of a tent leans up over my face, not visible but audible, a slanting plane of faint sound: the susurrus of blown snow. Nothing can be seen. The light-emission of the Chabe stove is cut off, and it exists only as a sphere of heat, a heart of warmth. The faint dampness and confining cling of my sleeping-bag; the sound of the snow; barely audible, Estraven’s breathing as he sleeps; darkness. Nothing else. We are inside, the two of us, in shelter, at rest, at the center of all things. Outside, as always, lies the great darkness, the cold, death’s solitude.
In such fortunate moments as I fall asleep I know beyond doubt what the real center of my own life is, that time which is past and lost and yet is permanent, the enduring moment, the heart of warmth.
I am not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I was hungry, overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it went on. I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.
— from “The Left Hand of Darkness”