“Introduction” from Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume One

The star-spanning story of humanity’s colonization of other planets, Ursula K. Le Guin’s visionary Hainish novels and stories redrew the map of modern science fiction, making it a rich field for literary explorations of “the nature of human nature,” as Margaret Atwood has described Le Guin’s subject. Now, for the first time, the complete Hainish novels and stories are collected in a definitive two-volume Library of America edition, with new introductions by the author.

This first volume in a definitive two-volume edition gathers the first five Hainish novels: Rocannon’s World, in which an ethnologist sent to a bronze-age planet must help defeat an intergalactic enemy; Planet of Exile, the story of human colonists stranded on a planet that is slowly killing them; City of Illusions, which finds a future Earth ruled by the mysterious Shing; and the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning masterpieces The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—as well as four short stories.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories publishes September 5th from Library of America. We’re pleased to share Le Guin’s new introduction to volume one below.

 

 

God knows inventing a universe is a complicated business. Science fiction writers know that re-using one you already invented is a considerable economy of effort, and you don’t have to explain so much to readers who have already been there. Also, exploring farther in an invented cosmos, the author may find interesting new people and places, and perhaps begin to understand its history and workings better. But problems arise if you’re careless about what things happen(ed) when and where.

In many of my science fiction stories, the peoples on the various worlds all descend from long-ago colonists from a world called Hain. So these fictions came to be called “Hainish.” But I flinch when they’re called “The Hainish Cycle” or any such term that implies they are set in a coherent fictional universe with a well-planned history, because they aren’t, it isn’t, it hasn’t. I’d rather admit its inconsistencies than pretend it’s a respectable Future History.

Methodical cosmos-makers make plans and charts and maps and timelines early in the whole process. I failed to do this. Any timeline for the books of the Hainish descent would resemble the web of a spider on LSD. Some stories connect, others contradict. Irresponsible as a tourist, I wandered around in my universe forgetting what I’d said about it last time, and then trying to conceal discrepancies with implausibilities, or with silence. If, as some think, God is no longer speaking, maybe it’s because he looked at what he’d made and found himself unable to believe it.


 

Usually silence is best, but sometimes I think it’s better to point out some of the gaps, to prevent readers from racking their brains in the effort to make sense out of what doesn’t. People ask, for instance: how did the League of Worlds morph into the Ekumen? or why did mindspeech suddenly vanish from the universe? I can’t answer the first question at all, but I know what happened to mindspeech. I couldn’t use it in a story any more, because when I began to think seriously about the incalculable effects mutual telepathy would have on a society, I could no longer, as it were, believe in it. I’d have to fake it. And though a fiction writer mustn’t confuse her creation with fact, encouraging “the willing suspension of disbelief” is not the same thing as faking.

Such gaps and inconsistencies in the Hainish cosmos are clear indications that it has always been more a convenience than a conception. I went back to it because it’s easier to return than to invent afresh, or because I’d found something in writing one story that I wanted to follow up on in another. I worked one world, one society, one history at a time. I did so each time with care for verisimilitude, coherence, and a plausible history. But there has never been any overarching plan to the whole.

This lack of structure, I see now, allowed my ideas to change and develop. I wasn’t stuck in a universe full of notions I’d outgrown, self-instituted rules limiting my imagination. I was free to wander. So a story might grow out of a novel or a novel out of a story (as is true of several in this volume). Or one story might grow from and develop the theme of another (leading to the “story suites” in volume two).

But still I didn’t think of how they all might interact as a whole, because I didn’t imagine them ever being collected all together.

I’m still not quite sure of the result, though I like it better than I expected. Is there a Hainish Universe after all, or is this just a very large pedlar’s bag full of worlds? I don’t know. Does it matter?


 

The first three novels in this volume were published by Donald A. Wollheim, the tough, reliable editor of Ace Books, in the Late Pulpalignean Era, 1966 and ’67. The first two, Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, came out as Ace Doubles: two short novels by two different authors in one paperback cover, like two trains running towards each other on one track. When one train hit the other you turned the book upside down and started from the other end. An Ace Double was a very good deal for under a dollar. It wasn’t a very good deal for the authors, or a brilliant debut in the publishing world, but it paid, it got you into print, it had readers.

I had entered the field of science fiction two or three years before via publication in genre magazines. Academia and literary criticism snubbed it, but it had a lively, informed, and contentious critical literature of its own in magazines and fanzines, and it was notable for the close connections among its writers and readers. Young writers in the genre were likely to get more intelligent attention and more sense of their audience than those who, having published a conventional realistic novel, were often left in a great silence wondering whether anybody but the proofreader had read it.

Science fiction was in this respect like poetry, a field in which I was then also occasionally getting published: a living literature ignored by most Americans, but read passionately by those who read it. Both were small worlds, resounding with theories, arguments, friendships, rivalries, flights of praise and volleys of insults, and dominated by figures worshiped by their followers. I had been daunted to find so many inhabitants of Erato fiercely marking the borders of their territory with spray or dung, and was glad to find the natives of Genre more hospitable. I’d been sending fiction out for years to mainstream editors who praised my writing but said they didn’t know what it was. Science fiction and fantasy editors did know what it was, or at least what they wanted to call it. Many of the established figures of the genre were open-minded and generous, many of its readers were young and game for anything. So I had spent a lot of time on that planet.

All the pieces in this volume date from those years. I won’t say much here about the first three, since my introductions to them, written in the late 1970s, are in the appendix.


 

Up until 1968 I had no literary agent, submitting all my work myself. I sent The Left Hand of Darkness to Terry Carr, a brilliant editor newly in charge of an upscale Ace paperback line. His (appropriately) androgynous name led me to address him as Dear Miss Carr. He held no grudge about that and bought the book. That startled me. But it gave me the courage to ask the agent Virginia Kidd, who had praised one of my earlier books, if she’d consider trying to place The Left Hand of Darkness as a hardcover. She snapped it up like a cat with a kibble and asked to represent me thenceforth. She also promptly sold the novel in that format.

I wondered seriously about their judgment. Left Hand looked to me like a natural flop. Its style is not the journalistic one that was then standard in science fiction, its structure is complex, it moves slowly, and even if everybody in it is called he, it is not about men. That’s a big dose of “hard lit,” heresy, and chutzpah, for a genre novel by a nobody in 1968.

The Nebula and Hugo Awards for that book came to me as validation when I most needed it. They proved that among my fellow writers of science fiction, who vote the Nebula, and its readers, who vote the Hugo, I had an audience who did recognise what I was doing and why, and for whom I could write with confidence that they’d let me sock it to them. That’s as valuable a confirmation as an artist can receive. I’d always been determined to write what and as I chose, but now that determination felt less like challenging the opposition, and more like freedom.

And I now had an agent who was willing to try—and almost always able—to sell whatever I sent her, however odd and ungenrifiable. For a while I was sending her a truly indescribable story so regularly that we referred to them as the Annual Autumnal Lemons. She sold them all.

The Dispossessed started as a very bad short story, which I didn’t try to finish but couldn’t quite let go. There was a book in it, and I knew it, but the book had to wait for me to learn what I was writing about and how to write about it. I needed to understand my own passionate opposition to the war that we were, endlessly it seemed, waging in Vietnam, and endlessly protesting at home. If I had known then that my country would continue making aggressive wars for the rest of my life, I might have had less energy for protesting that one. But, knowing only that I didn’t want to study war no more, I studied peace. I started by reading a whole mess of utopias and learning something about pacifism and Gandhi and nonviolent resistance. This led me to the nonviolent anarchist writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman. With them I felt a great, immediate affinity. They made sense to me in the way Lao Tzu did. They enabled me to think about war, peace, politics, how we govern one another and ourselves, the value of failure, and the strength of what is weak.

So, when I realised that nobody had yet written an anarchist utopia, I finally began to see what my book might be. And I found that its principal character, whom I’d first glimpsed in the original misbegotten story, was alive and well—my guide to Anarres.


 

“Winter’s King” was written before the novel The Left Hand of Darkness. In the story, all major characters were male, and it included both an aggressive invasion and a bloody rebellion. In 1968, my long reading of descriptions and accounts of early explorations of the Antarctic gave me the setting of the story, an Ice Age planet called Gethen or Winter. Along about that time I began wondering if I could invent a plausible human society that had never known war. Gethen appeared a possible setting for such a society: wouldn’t people defending themselves from relentless cold have less time and energy to waste on warmaking? But that notion was shaken when I considered the endless bloodshed of the Icelandic Sagas. Evidently something more than a cold climate must keep the Gethenians from the obsession with war and conquest that distinguishes our “high” civilisations.

So I went on thinking about a fully developed, complex civilisation without warfare and came to wonder, as one must, to what extent testosterone makes war. This brought me to the thought experiment on which Left Hand is based: if warfare is predominantly a male behavior, and if people are either male or female for only a few days a month during which their sexual drive is overwhelmingly strong, will they make war?

By the time I wrote Left Hand, I knew that Gethenians were androgynous, and though individually quite capable of violence, quarrels, feuds, and forays, they had never yet in their long history made war. So the story contributed to the novel only its Ice Age setting and some names.

Despite the warm reception it got, Left Hand received some fierce criticism for using the masculine pronoun for people without fixed gender. Our language offered the narrator only the binaries he and she; but some feminists and others seeking gender equality or redefinition were really angry with my acceptance of that situation, seeing it as a betrayal, and I couldn’t help but feel justice was on their side. When putting together my first story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, in 1975, I wondered whether to include a story that blatantly contradicted so much of the novel. It occurred to me that I might make some amends for all the hes in Left Hand by using she in a revised version of “Winter’s King.” I couldn’t repeat the shock of saying “The king was pregnant,” but surely calling a king she, or referring to Mr. Harge as her, is fairly jarring?

Yet if anybody noticed, nothing was said. Nobody got angry, and nobody sighed, “Ah, now that’s better!” The experiment seemed to have no result at all. I still find it odd.

The experiment is given here as the primary text, with the original in the appendix for those who want to ponder the differences. I wish I could write a third version that truly represents the character’s lack of gender. But for all the immense changes in the social perception of gender since the end of the twentieth century, we still have no accepted ungendered singular pronoun in narrative. It dehumanizes; they has too many confusing possible referents; no invented genderless pronoun has yet proved satisfactory. Our understanding of gender is still growing and changing. I hope and trust our wonderfully adaptable language will provide the usages we need.


 

“Vaster than Empires and More Slow” is the only stand-alone story in this volume.

My poetry and my fiction are full of trees. My mental landscape includes a great deal of forest. I am haunted by the great, silent, patient presences we live among, plant, chop down, build with, burn, take for granted in every way until they are gone and do not return. Ancient China had our four elements, earth, air, fire, water, plus a fifth, wood. That makes sense to me. But China’s great forests are long gone to smoke. When we pass a log truck on the roads of Oregon, I can’t help but see what they carry as corpses, bodies that were living and are dead. I think of how we owe the air we breathe to the trees, the ferns, the grasses—the quiet people who eat sunlight.

So I imagined a forest world. A world of plants, interconnected by root systems, pollen drift, and other interchanges and more ethereal linkages so complex as to rise to full sentience and perhaps intelligence. The concept filled my imagination to an extent not fully expressed by “Vaster.” But I am glad I wrote it. And happy to know that recent research confirms not only the possibility but the existence of systems of communication among the trees of a forest that are as essential to their being and their well-being as speech is to us.


 

The word-hound in me protests against the word “prequel”—“sequel” has honest roots, it grew out of Latin sequor, “prequel” is a rootless fake, there isn’t any verb praequor… but it doesn’t matter. What matters most about a word is that it says what we need a word for. (That’s why it matters that we lack a singular pronoun signifying non-male/female, inclusive, or undetermined gender. We need that pronoun.) So “The Day Before the Revolution” is, as its title perhaps suggests, a prequel to the novel The Dispossessed, set a few generations earlier. But it is also a sequel, in that it was written after the novel.

It can be hard to leave a place you’ve lived in for quite a while and very intensely, as I had lived on Anarres while writing the book. I missed the people I knew there. I missed their way of life. I wanted to go back.… And also, I’d wondered who the founder of that way of life, Odo, was—could I imagine my way into the head of a political philosopher, a fearless demagogue, an active revolutionary, a woman so different from myself? Only through the back door, as it were, to that mind: the way of illness, weakness, old age. Yang claims; yin shares. I could share in Odo’s being as a mortal coming to her death.


 

I wrote the story “Coming of Age in Karhide” more than a quarter-century after Left Hand, partly because I had always wanted to go back to Gethen, but also with the idea of filling some notable gaps in the novel, such as any description of Gethenian domestic life or sexual psychology and practices.

Writing the novel, I hadn’t been able to imagine such matters clearly at all. I doubt if my audience was ready to read them. The Universe in the 1960s was a man’s world—a remarkably chaste one. Nobody got much sex, except possibly the alien on the magazine cover carrying off a nubile human female in its tentacles, but perhaps it only wanted the girl for dinner. Some anthropological sophistication was beginning to slip into descriptions of alien society, but domestic customs, kinship, child-rearing, etc. were nowhere. Science fiction was still essentially an adventure-story genre, even if an intellectual one. We followed the boys out among the stars.

The few women who went with them were ship’s officers, scientists, living on terms set by male norms. Nobody wanted to know what mom and sis were doing down on Terra or Aldebaran-6.

In 1967, Pamela Zoline’s revolutionary story “The Heat Death of the Universe” first used science fiction to explore the mental world of a housewife. Soon stories by James Tiptree Jr., Carol Emshwiller, and others were making it clear that what mom and sis were up to down there might turn out not to be just what the boys expected. Earthwomen in science fiction began forming friendships and other questionable relationships with Space Aliens—rather as White women on the Oregon Trail had talked babies, food, and medicine with Indian women while the men were daring each other into bloodshed and conquest.

By 1995, the vast, fast changes in our society were shaking up science fiction. Writers were freely exploring behaviors, including sex and domesticity, other than Man’s Conquest of the Universe. In this atmosphere, it was easy for me to go back to Gethen at last, and enter a Gethenian kemmerhouse, and find out what people did there. I enjoyed the experience immensely.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Portland, Oregon
November 2016

From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, edited by Brian Attebery, a two-volume hardcover boxed set published by Library of America. Copyright © 2017 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.

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