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Sean Guynes

Le Guin’s City of Illusions: Language and Trust on Space Opera’s Margin

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering City of Illusions, first published by Ace Books in 1967. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

In the previous novel of our reread, we encountered the planet Werel and the struggle by descendants of the original Terran colonists to coexist with the indigenous Werelians at a moment of intense socio-political upheaval. Planet of Exile is a great example of the social-science turn in science fiction during the New Wave of the 1960s and exemplifies Le Guin’s concerns with how knowledge gets made and how cultures interact. Le Guin’s next novel, the beguilingly titled City of Illusions, furthers her interest in these subjects, asking not how knowledge gets made, but how can we trust that knowledge—what knowledge can we trust in a world of competing ideologies, myths, religions, politics, cultures, etc.?

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Le Guin’s Planet of Exile: Anthropological Speculations on Cultural Difference and Loss

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering Planet of Exile, first published by Ace Books in 1966. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

Among those who care about these things, there are (at least) two ways to divide science fiction. On the one hand we have hard science fiction, with its emphasis on extrapolating futures and possibilities from “real science,” from (exo)biology, (quantum) physics, geology, chemistry, etc. On the other hand, there’s soft science fiction and its supposedly contrasting emphasis on the less-serious, non-natural sciences: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and so on.

[Of course, look at any attempt to taxonomize genre and it breaks down…]

Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Rocannon’s World: Where the Hainish Cycle Begins

A (usually) biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering Rocannon’s World, first published by Ace Books in 1966. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

We’ve visited anarchist utopias and lush worlds of excrement and excess, traveled together across ice and political turmoil, gone to the ends of the earth in search of ourselves, into the dark depths beneath the world and even into the afterlife itself. And we came back. We might not be the same as when we started, but here we are. What’s more, we did it all as a new coronavirus emerged and shut us away to work from home. I commend you all for making it this far, yet we’ve only just begun! Now we pass out of the shadow of Ursula K. Le Guin’s most beloved and influential works; now we head into stranger, older lands and start at the beginning.

[Today we come to Rocannon’s World, Le Guin’s first novel…]

Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Farthest Shore: The Return of the King

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Farthest Shore, first published by Atheneum in 1972. My edition is Simon Pulse, mass market paperback, 2001, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

In fantasy publishing, the joke goes, all is trilogies. You want to write a novel, better have an idea for the next two books if you want a contract for the first. That wasn’t so in the late 1960s when Le Guin wrote A Wizard of Earthsea—trilogies were quite rare and SFF books were often sold as separate set pieces, bound together occasionally as part of a larger storyworld. This carried on the tradition of pulp magazines, which saw in seriality the dollar signs promised by a regular audience. So we have John Carter and Conan by the dozen, Asimov’s robot stories by the far-too-many, enough Witch World for a lifetime, and not as much Jirel of Joiry as we need.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Tombs of Atuan: Power, Ideology, and Becoming Uneaten

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Tombs of Atuan, first published by Atheneum in 1970. My edition is Atheneum 2012, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

As a youth, I was obsessed with the darkness—one of those many, little obsessions, the specificity of which died away at puberty only to be recovered in the haze of adulthood nostalgia. In elementary school I drew maps of tunnels that took up entire pages, and penciled in tiny stick figures who climbed about and dwelled there. I read a book about bats (Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing, a topic for another essay, no doubt) and spent a week sleeping in my closet, trying to become a bat. A little later I saw Pitch Black and tried to recreate the film in a dozen play sessions with friends. In middle school, I read R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels and fell in love with Faerûn’s Underdark. And on a trip to Ape Cave (a little ways from Mount St. Helens), I got to experience the utter and complete blackness of the world below ground for the first time after I convinced my family to take the lanterns and go ahead around a bend, to let me find my way back to them in total darkness. It was terrifying and wonderful at the same time; it was everything.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

A Wizard of Earthsea: The Unsung Song of the Shadow

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering A Wizard of Earthsea, first published by Parnassus Press in 1968. My edition is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Graphia Imprint, 2012, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

Every generation has its wizards.

At least since Tolkien’s Gandalf made the character-type approachable, if distant; an aid, ally, and possible friend, rather than a mystery, threat, or oaf—the subject of Christian damnation and Disneyan animation. True that’s not many generations of wizard-havers, but upon rereading Le Guin’s first major fantasy novel, and her first work ostensibly for children, I cannot help but feel a bit let down that my generation grew up with the middlebrow juggernaut of the Harry Potter series and the lowbrow action of Faerûn’s Elminster, instead of with Le Guin’s excerpts of the mythic Deed of Ged. (Just a bit, mind you.)

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Dispossessed, Part II: May You Get Reborn on Anarres!

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Dispossessed, first published by Harper & Row in 1974. My edition is Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014, and this installment of the reread covers pages 192 to the end.

Revolution is sexy.

It’s been in vogue since the 18th century when first the colonies that would become the United States, then the colonial domains of Haiti and Peru, then nation after nation across the Western world and its colonized peripheries declared new independences, new governments, new ways of relating between state and citizen. We might even go back further and speak of the many rebellions that sporadically rose up in the wake of Europeans’ “discovery” of the Americas and their enslavement and genocide of millions of black and brown folks all over the world. And even earlier, to medieval peasants’ revolts that shook the power of feudal lords in Europe and Asia, to religiously inspired rebellions across Christendom and Islamdom, and to the servile uprisings of the Roman Republic. Looked at one way, history is the story of revolutionary mo(ve)ments.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Dispossessed, Part I: A Woman in Every Table Top

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Dispossessed, first published by Harper & Row in 1974. My edition is Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014, and this installment of the reread covers pages 1 to 191 (out of a total of 387 pages)

In the popular imagination, Ursula Le Guin is best remembered as a feminist science fiction writer, always mentioned in the same breath as Margaret Atwood or Joanna Russ. People also really like her quote about capitalism and the divine right of kings, which ruffled feathers during her 2014 National Book Award acceptance speech. Anyone who’s shared one of the many meme-ings of that quote (paired with an image of Le Guin or an inspiring mountain landscape) is probably unsurprised to discover that Le Guin is just as well known for her anti-capitalist utopianism and—dare I say—her anarchism. In fact, if The Left Hand of Darkness (LHoD) marked Le Guin at the end of the 1960s as a leading voice of mainstream feminist science fiction—despite not being a self-identified feminist until more than a decade later—The Dispossessed reinvigorated utopian writing after more than half-a-century of quiessence and furthered Le Guin’s recognition as a literary master of SF.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Left Hand of Darkness, Part II: Love on the Ice

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Left Hand of Darkness, first published by Ace Books in 1969. My edition is Ace Books, 1999, and this installment of the reread covers pages 185 to the end (out of a total of 304 pages)

Gethen—Winter—is a world utterly alien to the vast majority of our earth’s population. The frozen wastes, heaving glaciers, icy crevasses, unending cold and snow are so far from the warmer climes that most humans inhabit that they stand out as exotic, other, exciting. Their ambisexuality aside, the people of Gethen also entice: they are an evolutionary branch of humankind suited to permanent winter, brought to sweats by the lowest setting on a small, portable heater in a tent buried in snow atop a mountain. For non-indigenous readers, the Gethenians likely conjure fetishized images of Inuit and igloos, or remind us of trivia about a language with thirty… no fifty—or was it a hundred?—words for snow. Perhaps the scene of two men (to Genly, at least, for a time) fleeing 800 miles across taiga, mountains, a glacier, running toward unsure safety in another country evokes the ironically cozy feeling of winter survival films like The Way Back (2010), Vertical Limit (2000), or, the gods of Kobol forbid, The Day After Tomorrow (2004).

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Left Hand of Darkness, Part I: Cold and Only Just Now Getting to War

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Left Hand of Darkness, first published by Ace Books in 1969. My edition is Ace Books, 1999, and this installment of the reread covers pages 1 to 183 (out of a total of 304 pages).

There are very few books whose memory of reading I can still feel, quite viscerally. Memories conjured by the smell of musty pages, the touch of yellowing paper, the sight of finger-oil stains down the middle of the foredge. I first read The Left Hand of Darkness in what Ambrose Bierce called “suitable surroundings”: huddled in the bedroom corner by the heating vent, reading by ambient light from the bathroom in the dead of a Boston winter so apt to the book that snow stayed piled in parking lots until June. It was a rough time in my life and those nights reading after everyone else had gone to sleep were the only reprieve from what seemed like a daily excuse to give up. Daytime: I felt, self-pityingly, like Genly on Gethen; nighttime, reading LHoD: I was me. So it has been an absolute pleasure to return to LHoD after all these years, to begin the Ursula K. Le Guin Reread where my own relationship to Le Guin began.

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Series: 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.]

Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

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