Ursula Le Guin: A Beginner’s Guide

From beginner to expert

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One of my favourite authors passed away in January. She was very old and yet I kind of thought she was going to live forever. Or, at least, that we’d invent some way of preserving her genius forever before she died (not something she would have approved of, anyhow). But I guess that we have found a way of preserving genius for at least some amount of time, in art.

Although, and perhaps I’m mistaken about this, I’m not sure how widely read she is in the UK. I’ve worked in a couple of bookshops, and speak to pretty much everyone about books, and in that time I’ve met only a handful of her readers — but they’re few and far between. Lots haven’t heard of her, even though she was perhaps one of the most influential and successful science-fiction writers around, and one of the most influential American novelists of the last century. Up to her death, she could have easily be described as one of America’s greatest living novelists. She became a “grandmaster” of science-fiction, won practically every award science-fiction and American fiction has to offer, was inducted into the Library of America (a rare achievement for a living author), and was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the National Book Award.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, she was asked whether she was weary of awards and honours:

“Always remember, you’re talking to a woman. And for a woman, any literary award, honors, notice of any sort has been an uphill climb. And if she insists upon flouting convention and writing SF and fantasy and indescribable stuff, it’s even harder […] I don’t think the rewards have been overdone. I think I’ve earned them. They are welcome and useful to me because they shore up my self-esteem, which wobbles as you get old and can’t do what you used to do.”

From my perspective, limited though it is, she seems to be more widely read in the States. And if so, here’s my introduction; the timing seems apt. Ursula Le Guin: a highly prolific American novelist, feminist, Taoist, anarchist.

Where to Ursula Le Begin?

The most straightforward and universally appealing of Le Guin’s work are almost certainly her dystopian science-fiction novels. The Lathe of Heaven is one of those works that if Le Guin weren’t referred to as a “sci-fi writer”, it would be considered “literary fiction” within the highly-respectable Utopian genre, sitting comfortably alongside Brave New World and Nineteen-Eighty Four and Fahrenheit 451 (which people often try and conveniently forget is sci-fi).

Of course, the first thing you need to know is that this description would’ve annoyed Le Guin. And, I don’t mean it in the way that she would have read it. Le Guin was not just a sci-fi writer but defensively a sci-fi writer — and as such also defensively a novelist:

“I would love to see somebody, somewhere, sometime, just talk about me as an American novelist.”

She got into public, and sometimes mistaken, rows with Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro about how they defined novels she saw plainly as science-fiction and fantasy works. She got irritated with definitions such as “magical realism” and “speculative fiction”, which snubbed the genres she worked within. To her, science-fiction was undeniably sci-fi. But that also meant that it was fiction, too.

And what I mean when I say it would be seen as literary fiction alongside some other dystopian fiction is that I believe fiction like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, and Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam novels, are science-fiction but are treated as literary fiction. This is a story for another day. If you’re already a proper science-fiction lover, though, or indeed simply open to the genre, I’d just move straight onto intermediate level and come back to here when you’re ready to read more.

The Lathe of Heaven is a slim novel with an almost Philip K Dick-like concept. George Orr dreams, and when he dreams he changes reality. He doesn’t just change the reality we’re living in now but the one we’ve lived through: the past, the present and the future. It’s kind of funny, too. From the perspective of writers in the 70s, 2002 was the future of climate change and overpopulation — and such is the future, partly-dystopic, version of Portland, Oregon that the novel creates. Portland is where Orr is forcibly given psychiatric treatment for overuse of his usual allowance of varying pills, which has been using to suppress his world-altering dreams.

Like the best novels, Lathe is heavily influenced by Le Guin’s own philosophy. The antagonist, Dr Haber, aims to manipulate Orr into changing the world for his own, and humanity’s, greater good — eliminating overpopulation (meaning many of the people who lived no longer ever existed) changing the climate, the social order. But in doing so he reveals the folly of “playing God” and how man’s own hubris often ends up with a worse reality than the one he started with.

Haber is pretty much the perfect villain, because you can see him persuading himself that he’s right. He’s not totally aware that he’s in the game for selfish ends.

The opening passage of the book, which is never returned to at all, paints a perfect metaphor of Le Guin’s vision of humanity. It’s the kind of thing that Vonnegut would’ve written, about the futility of it all, but with much finer, more beautiful prose:

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moon-driven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.”

Le Guin perfectly balances the drastic turns of a narrative in which the protagonist can literally change reality into anything at all. It’s also is a great introduction to Le Guin’s major themes and thought: how she views the self in the world, the machinations of power, the nature of humans. It’s an entry point into the rich imaginative power of Ursula Le Guin’s worlds — why she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be confined to realism. The Lathe of Heaven reads like one of the great American novels, in the style of Slaughterhouse-five. Richly imagined, beautifully realised, brief and deep, constantly shapeshifting.

Under 200 pages, that’s a good one to start off, if you just want a taste of what Le Guin’s work is like. Another quick one is the short novella The Word for World is Forest. It’s kind of like the 2008 film Avatar, except actually good, and far more subtle. There’s far less cliché and there’s much less of a white saviour complex, which is certainly an improvement. It’s similar in the synopsis that will follow (trees: good; humans: bad).

Humans from our world have colonised a forest planet occupied by small, green compassionate humanoids, and naturally the Terrans are destroying it for resources. Like any kind of colonisation, this doesn’t end well for the native people. For the indigenous species, their language (see the title) and worldview are what make them what they are. In their language, they have no concept of violence. Instead, it is introduced to them as a foreign concept by the Terrans’ oppression. By resisting genocide and slavery with violence, they have to change their culture and worldview. It’s not one of Le Guin’s masterworks, but it’s an enjoyable and brief treatise on pacifism and colonialism. And, for once, unlike so many other colonial and space-colonial fictions, there is no sign of these two tropes: aliens which are blatant and insensitive caricatures of a particular real, human culture; and a white, male human Christ-figure who integrates and saves them.

This brief novella lays some of the Taoist and environmentalist foundations that you’ll find cropping up as we go through — the sense of the balance of all things, respect for the rhythms of nature — but it’s not an essential read. So let’s move on.

Intermediate

Again, I think to the modern reader, this will remind you of the dystopian fiction we’re more familiar with — but it also does some meaty world-building, and has a small place in the massive, conjoined universe of fiction that Le Guin created in her sci-fi. We’ll get to that in more detail later on.

The Dispossessed is also the perfect novel for getting to grips with Le Guin’s thoughts on capitalism and politics. If cold war allegories are your jam (and they should be), this is the book for you.

The premise: two planets orbit each other. Urras, the homeworld of a humanoid species, is dominated by two superpowers, one capitalist, the other communist. The other world, Anarres, is an anarchist colony which has cut off all ties with the first. Our protagonist is Shevek (no surnames in anarchism). Shevek is an anarchist physicist born on an Anarres who travels to Urras to develop the theory which will make instantaneous interstellar communication possible between all worlds. He believes that the freedom of Urrasti capitalist society will allow him to develop his theory, away from the harsh environmental conditions on his anarchist homeworld, which require all members of the society to contribute to mining and harvesting, meaning that Shevek is less able to focus on his physics. Yet, he discovers that in a capitalist society (shock horror) there are other kinds of slavery, and he becomes locked into the political machinations of the hyper-capitalist society he arrives on — finds himself disgusted by their possessive views of sex, ownership and living.

If you’re a lover of Utopian fiction, this has got a lot of meat to it. The main thematic question is that of freedom. What is freedom, how does freedom exist in different social orders: the capitalist world of ownership and possession or the anarchist world of social labour for the greater good and bureaucratic power dynamics. There are questions of language, ethics, power. The Foucauldian in you will be very happy indeed. And it’s also just a cracking read.

From this, the obvious next reads are either The Left Hand of Darkness or A Wizard of Earthsea. If you’re hungry for more science-fiction, go straight to The Left Hand of Darkness, another entry into Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle” the world of loosely connected science-fiction books in which The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest are set. For this all you need to know is that The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a richly imagined medieval world called “Winter” or “Gethen”. It’s another novel of political intrigue and the analysis of the machinations of power, and in that way very similar to The Dispossessed. But this is also in contrast to the natural family/tribal groups that the race on Gethen value. Furthermore, the Gethenians are androgynous or “ambisexual”. They only assume sexual features at certain times in order to reproduce, and for the rest of the time they are androgynous and also completely asexual.

“Why did I invent these peculiar people? Not just so that the book could contain, halfway through it, the sentence ‘The king was pregnant’ — though I admit that I am fond of that sentence. […] I was using it. It was a heuristic device, a thought-experiment. […] One of the essential functions of science fiction, I think, is precisely this kind of question-asking: reversals of a habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination.”

This puts The Left Hand of Darkness, especially at the time of its publication in the 1960s, into a pretty uniquely feminist position in literature (and in our hearts). Le Guin’s novel is essentially asking what a human society would be without neurosis, obsession, shame, guilt, and coercion around sex and gender. And it’s also asking what a human society would be without socialised gender roles.

“The absence of exploitation. The Gethenians do not rape their world […] They have no myth of progress at all.”

They also can’t sexually coerce each other. On Gethen, sex has to be consensual, or else it’s physically impossible. And on Gethen, there has never been a war (although that is not destined for their future).

But like Le Guin says, I don’t think this is the focus of the novel. Though it has been the main point for discussion — because it was so groundbreaking and so genre-flipping and because it’s not really the focus. Not all of the features of Gethenian society are because of their androgyny. Some of them are to do with its climate, its tribalism. Le Guin thinks in terms of anthropology, so there’s always a lot to dig into.

And the novel isn’t quite as radical now. She acknowledges that there are few representations of feminine social roles in Gethenian society, mostly male ones. All characters are given male pronouns by the narrator, Genly Ai, a human from Earth. I first read this as a failure of the novel, which a lot of people do as well. I now read it as a failure of the male, human, Genly Ai. He sees all the genderless Gethenians as male and is constantly, badly philosophising over his binary view of gender and the perfect societal balance it strikes. Either way, it’s a groundbreaking and subtle novel and a highly enjoyable story. Viewing it, or any of her works, purely from the perspective of theory is a mistake. Le Guin’s works are stories, and good ones, too.

Which brings us to probably my favourite of her novels, A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s the first book of the Earthsea Cycle, but stands alone as a powerful coming-of-age novel which I could have read happily without ever reading the later instalments. Most of all, it’s a really thoughtful and ethically-minded story with a conflict that is pretty much the exact opposite of what I expect from a fantasy epic. Especially because it’s not about thinly-veiled analogues for white, medieval Europeans.

It follows the coming-of-age of Ged, who will one day become the most powerful wizard of Earthsea, a pre-medieval archipelago. The magic and world of Earthsea revolve around language and naming, with the knowledge of people’s “true” names being a key to power over them, and it is, consistent with Le Guin’s beliefs and Taoism, about the balance of the natural world. Magic in this world is about the understanding and respect for the movements and balance of the world. True wizards avoid using magic where possible. Moving or changing anything results in some kind of good or evil flowing from it. When you use wind to blow the sails of a ship, perhaps it causes evil winds flowing somewhere else. Perhaps a hurricane in a far distant island. Perhaps anything.

In Earthsea, too, evil comes from humans rather than monsters or indeed evil magic, necessarily. The conflict of the book is within Ged himself, within what he does and the repercussions it causes, rather than external enemies from foreign kingdoms, dark wizards or evil beasts. There are no losses or victories or epic battles, except psychological, internal ones. Despite this, it’s played out on an epic scale of strange lands and dragons. And the ending is one of the most satisfying and perfect endings of a book that I’ve ever read, making you instantly aware it couldn’t have ended in any other way.

Expert

From here you’ve been introduced, in a small way, to her two major cycles — the Earthsea Cycle and the Hainish Cycle — and so now you can go forth and explore these in more depth. The world of Earthsea has a lot more to offer, such as the great female-centred narratives of The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu, which meditate on complex female characters within the world of Earthsea, as well as sexual assault and misogynistic violence. Both are deliberate reversals of the adventures of A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore. They’re stories on a smaller scale and a more direct challenges than the rest of the Earthsea novels to “great man” narratives in fantasy and also to the politics of Earthsea (which are never really considered in A Wizard of Earthsea). Tehanu in particular explores the way women are historically silenced, even in narrative, and the domestic setting as a theatre for conflict and politics.

As for the Hainish Cycle: worry not, this isn’t one you have to read in order (they weren’t written in order). These novels are mostly standalone science-fiction works set in the same universe of the “Ekumen,” a utopian confederation of humanoid worlds. The essential concept is this: the Hainish, the first humanoid race, populated other planets (including Earth) with human races and let them evolve there. Now human races are contacting each other and using interstellar travel for the first time in order to set up diplomatic unions across the universe.

There’s plenty more to read from this universe, with endless variations of possible human societies on different worlds. It’s in one sense and anthropological thought experiment. In another, they’re some of the most human and iconic science-fiction stories going. Or stories, full stop.

God Tier

As for Le Guin, that’s as far as I’ve read, really. But she’s a fantastic thinker and writer. She’s written poetry and plenty of non-fiction. It’s worth checking out these interviews and the next “novel” I’ll be moving onto is Always Coming Home: an anthropological compendium set far in the post-apocalyptic future of California, so far in fact that the people there don’t remember it. It’s not a novel per se. It is like an encyclopedia or an anthology — it’s the natural end point of Le Guin’s anthropological thought: a complete study of a people, including stories, legends, myths, recipes, music, history. It’s massive and complex and I can’t wait to get stuck in. Another to go to is her short story collections, which are wonderful and contain some of those great science-fiction ideas that leave you breathless. I recommend the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, in particular the stories “The Ones who Walk Away From Omelas”, “Nine Lives”, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow”, and “Direction on the Road”.

For non-fiction, her last book was No Time To Spare, a collection of essays which posthumously won the PEN award for the Art of the Essay. Yes: she’s still winning awards. “I don’t think the rewards have been overdone. I think I’ve earned them. They are welcome and useful to me because they shore up my self-esteem, which wobbles as you get old and can’t do what you used to do.”

Her work is thoughtful and sensitive and beautiful but it’s also not, because of that, lacking in imagination. The worlds she created were lovely, dark and deep. They were thick in plot and philosophical depth. They were full of political fury and a joy for life.

You’ll be missed.