Given her incredible skill at narrative economy, Ursula K. Le Guin could probably do a much better job of summing up her own achievements as a writer than I could. Then again, Le Guin could do most things better than most writers. An undisputed master of science fiction and fantasy, she also successfully dabbled in alternative history, metafictional gambits, and even straightforward realism. Her essays reveal an astute and acerbic commentator on our world, whether writing about adopting a cat or the rapaciousness of capitalism. (One of her essays, about her problems with the Syfy Network adaptation of one of her novels, was published right here on Slate, and one of the funniest pieces she ever wrote savaged a piece published here too.)
The galaxy of Le Guin’s fiction is vast, filled with habitable worlds in which any reader could get lost. This raises the inevitable question of where to start. Here are a few landing sites for you to consider.
Very short stories
Le Guin could do more in an independent clause than many authors could do in a whole chapter. So if you really want to know “is this a writer whose work I will enjoy” you could do worse than quickly—very quickly—checking out two of her short stories, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and “She Unnames Them.” Both are available online and both will take less time for you to read than it would for me to describe them. Omelas is, according to Le Guin herself, her most widely read and anthologized short story. It describes the Festival of Summer in a place called Omelas, but then turns lightly—and hilariously—metafictional as Le Guin struggles with how to get you to understand Omelas and its appeal: “I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody,” she writes. “Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy.” There’s a twist coming, of course, one that raises lingering and troubling questions about what we owe to those on whom our own privilege rests.
“She Unnames Them,” in which all the animals of the Earth give up their human-granted names, demonstrates the lyrical power of Le Guin’s writing, the way that she took the prose style of folk tales and legends and made it somehow both thoroughly modern and timeless. You can feel the influence of this style, and the way it bridges the gap between older masters like Tolkien and the modern era, on writers like Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin. While you’re relishing the writing, she’s also setting up a reveal of what the story is really about, which I will not spoil, except to say I sent it to a friend Tuesday night and she responded simply with fury that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize.
In her 2011 essay on capitalism, “Clinging Desperately to a Metaphor,” Le Guin asked, “Why do we never question the system itself, so as to find ways to get around it or out of it?” This question could just as easily serve as a mission statement for her work. To read her brilliant short story “Solitude” (in The Unreal and the Real), for example, is to become enmeshed in a profound and complex mother-daughter relationship, an examination of radical individualism and gender, and a rethinking of what constitutes a successful civilization, all in 40 pages.
Her go-to narrative tactic is to throw the reader in the deep end of a world, subtly using native myth and legend to show you the color and temperature of the water you are in and the particularities of coruscating sunlight across its surface. The Left Hand of Darkness is a political thriller and an arctic adventure saga and a thought experiment into how gender shapes society, all at once. One of the many novels and stories in the Hainish Cycle (don’t worry, you don’t have to read them in any kind of order), Darkness follows a diplomat who has voyaged to the planet of Gethen to try to convince its nations to join a kind of galactic U.N. of humanoid worlds. The Gethens are ambisexual. They are biologically neuter for three weeks of every month, and then essentially go into heat, during which they grow either male or female sex organs. Absent gendered norms of behavior and the social customs that both shape and are shaped by gender, the diplomat finds himself frequently bewildered by the Gethens, no more so than when he falls in love.
Part of why books like Left Hand and the one I consider her greatest masterpiece, The Dispossessed, work so well is that they’re also compulsively readable. Le Guin knew her way around plot, and how to keep you turning the pages relentlessly. Her Earthsea novels take the mechanisms of high fantasy—magic objects, wizard schools, quests—and reconfigure them as local, and deeply personal. In the first book of this series, A Wizard of Earthsea, an aspiring magic user named Ged must solve the ultimate problem: himself. If you love Harry Potter, or His Dark Materials, or The Chronicles of Prydain, it’s absolutely the place to start.
A few years ago, Orb Books collected the first three Hainish novels into one volume called Worlds of Exile and Illusion. Coming in at just 383 pages, Worlds tells three very different stories, on three very different planets, unified by Le Guin’s assured writing and thematic concerns. In Rocannon’s World, the titular hero, an interstellar explorer and researcher, becomes ensnared in a high fantasy adventure complete with flying beasts, feudalism, a hermit sage, and vampires. Planet of Exile takes place on Werel, where the seasons last for years, and a particularly harsh and decades-long winter is coming. A Hainish colonist who has been stranded on the planet teams up with a young native woman to try to unite the tribes of Werel before winter arrives, and with it an invasion of ravaging nomadic tribes from the north. (It is, in other words, the entire meta-story of Game of Thrones, published 30 years earlier and covering the same ground in about 100 pages.) In the third book, City of Illusions, a human with no memory sets off to learn of his origins. The reader in turn learns the way that the book fits in with the two before it, a revelation that moved me to tears when I first encountered it.
I could go on and on. Le Guin was prolific enough that there are duds, of course, but even those have moments where they are in turn lush, challenging, funny, wise—or sometimes all of these at once.
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