Ursula K. Le Guin
• The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
• The Dispossessed (1974)
The story of the sorcerer's apprentice is retold many times in mythology and fantasy. It goes like this: a seemingly ordinary young lad discovers he has an odd paranormal ability.... more
Ursula K. Le Guin
So human, we aliens
The growing respectability since the 1960s of what is loosely called science fiction can be attributed to Ursula Kroeber Le Guin as much as to anyone else. Crossover acceptance of Le Guin's work—the recognition of it being good, even great, literature—brought many mainstream readers to what had formerly been considered a narrow genre appealing to young males, concerning space battles and bug-eyed monsters.
Her themes are profoundly human, saying more about us here and now than about any beings in an imagined future.
The reaction in the SF community to her wider acceptance has sometimes been to complain that she does not write genuine science fiction. Her stories often involve time and space travel to alien worlds, but she does not deal with the science, it is said. The SF trappings are there just to bring her characters into novel situations where her focus is on their relationships with each other and, most importantly, their relationships with their environment. Religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis and anthropology are woven throughout these relationships.
Okay, so don't call her a science-fiction writer. Call her a writer of speculative fiction, which could also include her fantasy tales. Or come up with a new term to describe the Le Guin hybrid. But by any name, her writing touches a lot of people.
Sometimes her writing reminds me of the work of J.G. Ballard (The Crystal World, The Drowned World, Empire of the Sun) in that protagonists we can identify with are thrown into alien environments, which leads them to reconsider their assumptions and embark on inward journeys of discovery. Ballard's characters come to accept the cold, indifferent or hostile otherness of reality, however—while Le Guin's characters journey to expand their inherent humanity.
Born Ursula Kroeber in Berkley, California, she had a pioneering anthropologist father and a noted-author mother. She started off writing poetry and realistic novels (unpublished) before turning to science fiction and fantasy.
Many of her early SF stories, novellas and novels take place in our future galaxy which is revealed to have been seeded by people from the planet Hain, creating worlds of great environmental and social diversity but with a human stock of common origin. A peaceful league of these worlds develops through the centuries in Le Guin's works. The first full-scale novel Rocannon's World (1966) features an ethnographer marooned on a primitive world on which mental telepathy ("mindspeech") is discovered. Planet of Exile (1966) concerns an Earthling colony on a planet whose native inhabitants they treat with disdain. City of Illusions (1967) takes place on Earth ruled by invaders who use a perversion of mindspeech, called "mindlying".
Le Guin's popular breakthrough came with the fourth novel in the series, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). This novel, which can be appreciated without knowledge of the preceding works, follows the exploits of an emissary from the Hainish league of planets to a pre-space world. The unusual features of the planet Gethen are that it is very cold and its inhabitants are androgynous—neither entirely male nor female—except during several days per month when they are in heat and take on the characteristics of whichever sex complements their partner at the time. The novel won the two highest awards for science fiction, the Hugo and the Nebula.
It was followed by two Hainish novellas, Vaster than Empires and More Slow (1971) set on a planet of sentient plants and The Word for World is Forest (1972) about the exploitation and liberation struggle of the natives of a wooded world, an obvious (at the time) Vietnam analogy. The latter appears in Volume 1 of Again, Dangerous Visions, the celebrated anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, and won another Hugo. It was also published separately later.
The Nebula-winning story "The Day before the Revolution" (1974) introduces an anarchist society that would be featured in the last major Hainish novel, The Dispossessed (1974). That novel repeated the success of The Left Hand of Darkness by winning both the Hugo and Nebula but is regarded as one of her most difficult works. The Dispossessed takes us back to an earlier time, to a physicist who discovers a new mathematics which will lead to a method of instantaneous communication in the developing league. Subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, the novel pits an anarchist society against a capitalist one, finding good and bad in both.
One of Le Guin's most popular works in this period was a non-Hainish novel, The Lathe of Heaven (1971). Concerning a man who can dream alternative realities into existence, it's been compared to the reality-twisting work of Philip K. Dick. It has twice been made into television movies: the first in 1980 for PBS has developed a cult following and remains more highly regarded than the 2002 remake on A&E.
Most other non-Hainish short stories up to the mid-1970s can be found in the collection, The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975).
Le Guin's most-beloved work however may be the Earthsea fantasy series written almost contemporaneously with the Hainish tales. It starts with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) in which a young sorcerer's apprentice, Ged, sets out on his career as a magician in a world of islands and eventually faces a powerful evil force, both internal and external. The second entry in the series, The Tombs of Atuan (1971), takes Ged into another adventure but is told mainly from the point of view of a new character, the young priestess Arha. Taking Ged through his mature and last years is The Farthest Shore (1972), which won a National Book Award. Years later Le Guin added Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), focusing on the power of women and winning one more Nebula, and then—belying the previous title—another book, Tales from Earthsea (2001). And most recently a fifth Earthsea novel has appeared: The Other Wind, which continues the Tehanu story.
Among Le Guin's prodigious output over the years has been her acclaimed story "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight?" which won yet another Hugo and was turned into a graphic novel of the same title in 1994.
Always Coming Home (1985) is an experimental collage of poetry, stories, drawings, recipes and other documents, and was originally distributed with a cassette of music, all providing an immersive experience of a matriarchal society in a future California.
Le Guin has also published numerous volumes of essays, literary criticism, interviews, poetry and children's books, in addition to editing story collections. One of her most interesting and provocative non-fiction books is The Language of Night (1979, revised 1989), containing twenty-four essays on feminism, fantasy and the craft of writing science fiction.