Finding Your Way in the Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
It was with a heavy heart that the world received the news of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing earlier this week. The influence that Le Guin has had not only on science fiction and fantasy, but on literature as a whole, is hard to quantify. The huge outpouring of grief, love, and celebration following the news is a testament to how wide-reaching and beloved she was.
A writer of novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, Le Guin leaves behind an enormous body of work which spans many genres and styles. Her stories have protagonists of colour, female leads, men forced to confront the consequences of their actions. Her fascination with social structures, psychology, and philosophy led to a form of science fiction that was at once both meditative and fierce, tackling subjects such as gender and sexuality with a graceful intelligence. Environmentalism is another of her key themes, something which has only grown in relevance as time has gone on.
As with any prolific author, getting started always seems like a daunting task. This list is designed for readers who might not have read any of her work yet, or for readers wondering where to go next. I have not included her poetry and non-fiction here because I think these are easier to dive straight into (Words Are My Matter is particularly good). So, to help find your way through her fiction, I have listed several recommendations for her novels and short fiction. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, largely because I’d list everything, but for anyone who wants to get lost in the worlds she created for a little while, here are some good places to set out from.
A Wizard of Earthsea
Whenever I am asked where to start with Le Guin’s work, I will always go to The Earthsea Cycle first of all. It was my introduction to her writing when, aged 10, I found an incredibly battered copy of A Wizard of Earthsea hiding on my primary school library shelves. It tells the tale of Ged, who heads to a school of wizardry where a conflict with one of his fellow students lands him in trouble. A shadow creature is attacks him and he must learn how to be free of it. Subversive in its depiction of a dark-skinned hero in a more traditionally Western epic, Earthsea is a glorious creation. It is a world where balance is important and must be maintained, where names and language are the key to power. I could easily put every Earthsea book here though. The cycle is pure magic.
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The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is a collection of short stories, which Le Guin described as a retrospective of her published short fiction to date. In a rough chronological order, it’s fascinating to read through and see the development of Le Guin as a writer and not just in short story form. Four of the seventeen stories collected contained ideas, locations, or characters that she would go on to use in various novels. ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ would give birth to Earthsea, while ‘Winter’s King’ takes place on the planet of Winter, which would be the location for The Left Hand of Darkness. My favourite connection is ‘Semley’s Necklace’, which was first published as ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’, where a woman searches for a family heirloom. During the story, she meets a character called Rocannon, a man for whom Le Guin felt compelled to write a novel.
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If you want to dive straight into the deep end of Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, head to The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both nothing short of masterpieces, but I am going to use this opportunity to extol the virtues of her very first novel, Rocannon’s World. Rocannon is an ethnologist who travels to the second planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, but discovers that an enemy of the League of All Worlds has built a base on the planet. He sets out on a quest to find the base and alert the League before the enemy attacks. Encountering various cultures along the way, Rocannon finds himself transformed by his experiences. Though it is science fiction, Rocannon’s World blends elements of high fantasy with its narrative, resulting in a novel that is mesmerizing and emotional with a real kicker of an ending.
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Always Coming Home
Not content with using narratives to explore strange new worlds and civilisations, Always Coming Home is one of Le Guin’s most extraordinary works. It concerns a tribe called the Kesh, who live in a place that was once known as Northern California “a long, long time ago.” Le Guin dispenses with a traditional story structure in favour of something more inventive. Always Coming Home is a collection of the cultural artifacts of the Kesh, featuring stories, songs, poems, and plays. In doing this, Le Guin builds a picture of a culture not through a description, but through their own words. It’s a book that creates a curious feeling when reading it because you are aware at all times that the Kesh are fictional (or perhaps more accurately, hypothetical), but Le Guin’s skill lies in ensuring their culture feels present, vital, and rich.
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The Lathe of Heaven
The Lathe of Heaven is one of Le Guin’s larger experiments in utopian/dystopian fiction. It follows George Orr, a man who is capable of ‘effective dreaming’ which can change reality around him. He is thrust into the care of William Haber, a psychiatrist and sleep researcher, whose ambition finds him working with George to change reality for what he thinks is the better. George soon realises that this is definitely not the case. For example, when George dreams that racism no longer exists in the world, everyone’s skin colour turns to a pale grey. Through the story, where George’s dreaming has increasingly large consequences, Le Guin interrogates our ideas of utopian thinking and the sacrifices that would have to be made in order to achieve the kind of paradise that previous genre writers had imagined. It’s darkly funny in places and, as with most Le Guin novels, fierce and uncompromising.
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Lavinia finds Le Guin in the realms of historical fiction. Taking her inspiration from The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of Rome, Le Guin relegates the hero Aeneas to a secondary character and focuses on the girl who was to become his wife, Lavinia. It is a novel typical of Le Guin’s ambition; not only does she use Lavinia’s story to examine patriarchal social structures, she also uses the character to explore patriarchal writing. Virgil barely mentions Lavinia in his epic because he sees her as not particularly important and in doing so, she becomes representative of the way in which women are so often written out of history and the stories of men. The novel is a deft display of Le Guin’s talents and one which finds the richness in the alternative perspective of a legend.
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