The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Introducing the Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Ursula K. Le Guin might very well be the most critically celebrated author of SFF, beloved of both the literary and genre worlds—and make no mistake that these markets, their audiences, and the generic and stylistic assumptions behind each still carry significance over 50 years after Le Guin turned to SFF because the literary journals wouldn’t take her stories (and because the SFF mags paid). Authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are darlings of genre and mainstream fiction, remembered by many adults with fondness from their childhood years; their influence has been huge and adaptations of their work have been numerous. Le Guin, on the other hand, has rarely been adapted but has the curious distinction of being beloved by literary elites and genre diehards in equal measure, and her influence has gone beyond the literary to make waves in political circles, among anarchists, feminists, activists for racial and decolonial justice, and others.

As we enter a new decade, the third of a still-young century and even younger millennium, we have been greeted with more of the same: environmental disasters; war and imperial interventions; increasingly polarized cultural and political divisions; and, as always, billions without adequate resources needed to survive. In short, the 2020s look bleak as shit.

But history has always been pretty damn bleak. Time and time again, it has taken the dreaming of utopians and the deeds of revolutionaries to put things right, even if only for a time. For many, Le Guin stands as the exemplar of a utopian writer, someone whose intellect, wit, tenacity, and tenderness grabbed ahold of a sexist, racist genre and wrestled it into something that sought justice through fantasy and extrapolation. She has by no means been the only revolutionary SFF writer, nor always the most successful (just think of her use of masculine pronouns for agender people on Gethen, and her initial icy response to critics; or her failure, in her own words, to imagine a wizardess of Earthsea), and still—partly because of her admitted faults—Le Guin’s writing remains one of the most powerful keys to alternative, utopian thinking left to us in this new decade.

So on the second anniversary of her passing in 2018, I follow the tradition Tor.com has set in offering exceptional “rereading” series of major authors by introducing the Ursula K. Le Guin Reread, offered as a remembrance of her transformative writing, exciting worlds, and stories that changed countless lives. I don’t want the Reread to be a memorial, for though Le Guin may be dead, I have no interest in raising a mausoleum and singing praises, neglecting or cutting short any hint of criticism. No, Le Guin lives with us through her fiction—it is powerful, imperfect, necessary. If we want it, her words can be a mirror for us, a blueprint, a warning, a comfort, a biting urge to write, make, or do something more.

The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread will progress like all the others: a regular post tracking my reread of nearly everything Le Guin wrote. I will offer summaries, commentary (informed where possible by work written by those who have come before), and probably leave behind a trail of unanswered questions for us to think about in the months, maybe even years, to come. I intend to publish every two or three weeks, with the occasional hiatus.

I begin the Reread with Le Guin’s most well-known books, those most closely associated with her name and most readily available at bookstores and libraries. We’ll start with The Left Hand of Darkness, her first major science fiction novel, chronologically speaking, and probably her most well-known. The Left Hand belongs to her far-future Ekumen cycle, and uses the familiar story of “normal” humans exploring an “alien” society as an excuse to think about gender, sex, and sexuality at the height of second-wave feminism. Next, we move on to The DispossessedLe Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” about Shevek and his navigation of life in an anarchist, and then capitalist, society. It is not an “easy” novel, but it is a powerful meditation on social structure, coercion, capitalism, and the tension between individual desire and social duty, not to mention, it contains one of the most poorly addressed scenes in the thousands of pages she wrote. The early phase of the reread then concludes with Le Guin’s first three Earthsea novels: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. I’ll have plenty to say about these, but if you aren’t familiar, just know they’re about wizards, magic, and the nature of power—helpful, I know!

After these “masterworks” written early in her career (1969–1974), we go back to the beginning and read Le Guin chronologically, hitting every novel and story collection, three essay and interview collections, one anthology of her children’s books (the Catwings series), and one collection of her poetry (the final one of her career). We’ll discover that while The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea trilogy are undoubtedly incredible novels, not to mention influential in their genres at narrative, aesthetic, and political levels, these works represent Le Guin before she became the woman she was when she died.

We seem to have crystalized our idea of Le Guin and her writing, stuck her and her work forever in that period between 1969 and 1974—five years out of a career that spanned almost six decades (that’s 11.8% for you nerds)—but she was so much more than that person. It’s not uncommon to think of famous authors only in terms of who they were in their “peak” years; but to leave our remembrance of Le Guin there would be a terrible loss for us as readers. I am excited to delve into the later works of Le Guin’s career, some of which I have not yet read, and recover the brilliance, beauty, and oddity of books like The Telling (2000), The Annals of the Western Shore trilogy (2004, 2006, 2007), and Lavinia. And by giving as much time to her stories as to her novels, and glimpsing briefly at her non-fiction and poetry, I hope this reread will provide a more complete and nuanced sense of Le Guin’s extraordinary career and collective of ideas.

This is the scope of the reread:

Masterworks

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (novel, 1969)
  • The Dispossessed (novel, 1974)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea (novel, 1968)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (novel, 1970)
  • The Farthest Shore (novel, 1972)

Chronological List

  • Rocannon’s World (novel, 1966)
  • Planet of Exile (novel, 1966)
  • City of Illusions (novel, 1967)
  • The Lathe of Heaven (novel, 1971)
  • The Word for World Is Forest (novel, 1972)
  • The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (story collection, 1975)
  • Very Far Away from Anywhere Else (novel, 1976)
  • Orsinian Tales (story collection, 1976)
  • The Eye of the Heron (novel, 1978)
  • Malafrena (novel, 1979)
  • The Language of the Night (essay collection, 1979)
  • The Beginning Place (novel, 1980)
  • The Compass Rose (story collection, 1982)
  • Always Coming Home (novel, 1985)
  • Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (story collection, 1987)
  • Catwings (children’s book series, 1988-1999)
  • Tehanu (novel, 1990)
  • Searoad (novel, 1991)
  • A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (story collection, 1994)
  • Four Ways to Forgiveness (story collection, 1995)
  • Unlocking the Air (story collection, 1995)
  • The Telling (novel, 2000)
  • Tales from Earthsea (story collection, 2000)
  • The Other Wind (novel, 2001)
  • The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (story collection, 2002)
  • Changing Planes (story collection, 2003)
  • The Gifts (novel, 2004)
  • Voices (novel, 2006)
  • Powers (novel, 2007)
  • Lavinia (novel, 2008)
  • Cheek by Jowl (essay collection, 2009)
  • The Wild Girls (story collection, 2011)
  • So Far So Good (poetry collection, 2018)
  • The Last Interview (essay collection, 2019)

This list shows that, like many professional SFF writers who began working for pay before the twenty-first century, Le Guin wrote a significant amount of short fiction alongside her novels. What struck me, in putting together this list and seeing everything lined up chronologically, is that as she aged, the trajectory of her interests changed: she wrote more non-fiction, more poetry, more stories. She wrote historical fiction pastiche (Lavinia) and tackled the YA market of the early 2000s with The Annals of the Western Shore trilogy, strikingly different from the YA world of the 1970s when Earthsea appeared. She wrote children’s books about cats with wings. She penned new novels in old series that radically rethought the worlds and universes she’d previously built. She began to translate SFF works from Spanish into English, including Argentinian author Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (1983, trans. 2003) and Romanian author Gheorghe Sasarman’s Squaring the Circle: A Pseudotreatise of Urbogony (Romanian 1975; trans. from Spanish 2013). And she reinterpreted Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching for a “modern” audience—not uncontroversially, she since spoke no Chinese.

After the 1980s, Le Guin’s writing output was slower, more deliberate. This shouldn’t be surprising; she was by then secure in her career, lauded in genre and non-genre circles, and nearly into her 1960s. She could rest if she wanted, but instead she wrote on; how could she not? So it’s no surprise that more than half of my list, by numbers if not page counts, was published after 1985’s Always Coming Home—a high watermark of her career as a critical utopianist. And yet most of her works from the 1990s and 2000s are virtually unknown beyond her closest acolytes.

The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread for Tor.com shifts focus from just the best remembered works and traces Le Guin as she grew, learned, and taught from 1966 to 2018. My goal is to survey Le Guin as she was, although I cannot argue that my own interests will not filter into the survey. The reread will parse Le Guin’s novels and collections into at minimum one post and more often two, sometimes three (and already I know I’ll need five to discuss the 800+ pages of Always Coming Home!).

There is a lot of ground to cover and not enough time in life (mine, at least) to give everything due attention. After all, we’re talking about someone’s entire life work, synthesized and responded to in a series of blog posts. But where novels, stories, essays, and poems call out for deeper engagement, I will oblige. My writing will also shift based on your feedback (with due credit), so please share your thoughts and call me out on all the details (I’m pretty sure I’ve already called at least one novella, by SFWA standards, a novel).

I embark on the daunting quest of the Ursula K. Le Guin Reread because Le Guin has meant a great deal to my life. My love of her writing, and especially her later Earthsea novels, and her political example aside—who doesn’t wish for an anarcho-feminist grandma willing to stick it to the book world while receiving the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters?—Le Guin has shaped my life quite drastically. It was an essay on The Dispossessed (a portion of which can be read here) that got me into PhD programs, leading me to greater opportunities as a critic and historian of SFF. And, perhaps more importantly, it was a line about Le Guin in an online dating profile and one conversation about Le Guin’s “best” novels later (we both agreed it’s Tehanu and still do) that brought my partner into my life, with whom I shared my true name thanks to Le Guin.

Those who know her work, or were lucky enough to meet her, all have our stories about what Le Guin means—to us, to SFF, to literature, to the world. I welcome the love for, criticism of, challenges to, and engagement with Le Guin’s writing, politics, and legacy that I hope this reread will inspire. Le Guin was not perfect. There are complaints, groans, and arguments to be leveled at Le Guin’s gender, racial, sexual, disability, and even class politics (among others). We are allowed our heroes, but we should not be allowed them unblemished; here be dragons, and there is much to learn from grappling with them.

So let us set sail on the seas of Le Guin’s words; the voyage will be long, the surprises many, and we will get lost on the way. And this is precisely what we asked for—after all, we read SFF. The only thing left to do, then, is turn the page… Join me Wednesday, February 5th for our first foray into The Left Hand of Darkness.

Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction for University of Nebraska Press, and co-writing a book on whiteness for the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. For animals, politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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