From 'Earthsea' to 'Hain,' here's where to start with the great writer's oeuvre
The influential fantasy and science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this week. Her death is a sad moment for literature fans everywhere, but she left behind a literary treasure trove for the ages. Over the course of her long career, Le Guin wrote dozens of books in a variety of genres — fantasy novels, realistic short stories, snarky blog posts, science-fiction parables, and everything in between. The breadth of her bibliography is impressive, but can also make it confusing for new reader unsure where to start.
Below, we’ve assembled a beginner’s guide to Le Guin’s oeuvre, breaking it down into four of the genres in which she worked (fantasy, science-fiction, realism, and nonfiction), with suggestions for where to start and where to go next. There are many, many more where these came from.
Where to start: A Wizard of Earthsea
Behold the book that started it all. Le Guin’s 1968 novel about a young boy going to wizard school predated Harry Potter by 30 years, and the popularization of the “young adult” genre by even more. A Wizard of Earthsea laid the groundwork for later pop culture phenomena, and yet still stands on its own today as a true landmark of coming-of-age literature (in 2013, EW named it our staff pick for Best YA Novel of All Time). The book remains powerful because Ged Sparrowhawk, Le Guin’s eager young wizard, has to learn not only words of power and magical spells, but also the limits of his own impact on the world.
Unlike so many fantasy epics these days, Ged’s greatest enemy is not a poorly-defined megalomaniac trying to destroy everything, but rather his own arrogance. Believing that his prodigious magical powers give him the moral authority to bring someone back from the dead, Ged instead upsets the balance of the world and brings a dark and powerful shadow into it: the embodiment of his own selfish and destructive tendencies. To make up for the great harm he has done to the world, Ged must journey from island to island, first fleeing the shadow and then pursuing it, in order to find his true name, and so become himself.
Where to go next: The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu
Readers who enjoy A Wizard of Earthsea will be pleased to know that the series only gets more interesting from there. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, focuses on a young priestess named Tenar, forced to become a priestess to ancient nameless gods of darkness. Her encounters with Ged examine how societies can sometimes radically differentiate male and female versions of power, and how men and women can reach across differences to face down the dark forces that oppress them all.
The story picks up years later in The Farthest Shore, when an older and wiser Ged must journey with a young prince named Arren to the ends of the earth in order to figure out what’s making the world sick. It makes for a particularly resonant read in our current zeitgeist, where so many people seem paranoid and miserable but also confused about why and how the world went so wrong.
The Farthest Shore ends with a glorious cathartic climax, but 20 years later Le Guin returned to continue the story of Earthsea with a new novel, Tehanu. It’s probably best to give yourself your own break before picking up Tehanu, because it is so different from its predecessors and in fact radically interrogates their assumptions. Ged and Tenar are much older now, and each reflect with as much bitterness as wisdom on the decay of their once-shining powers (aging is a theme Le Guin tackled in her nonfiction work as well; see below). At the same time, they are trying to protect and care for a young girl named Therru, who was raped and burned by her caregivers but nonetheless seems to demonstrate the hints of some great power. In its juxtaposition of age and youth, Tehanu is kind of like the new Star Wars movies if there was less action and more scenes of Luke and Leia wondering whether blowing up the Death Star was even really worth it in the end.
Where to start: The Left Hand of Darkness
Much of Le Guin’s science-fiction stories are loosely grouped as the Hainish Cycle, because they share an overarching premise: Centuries into the future, humans (originally hailing from the planet Hain) have spread across the stars and developed new traditions and cultures on planets separated by hundreds of light-years. Some of these planets have banded together to form a galactic UN-type organization called the Ekumen, and occasionally send out anthropologists and ambassadors to far-flung planets to see if their populations are ready to join their distant relatives.
That is how Le Guin’s greatest science-fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, begins: With an Ekumen envoy named Genly Ai dispatched to the icy planet Gethen (or “Winter”), to take stock of its inhabitants. What he finds there, to his continuing astonishment, are a people who have developed only one gender. Once a month, Gethenians go into a state called “kemmer,” in which they develop either male or female sexual characteristics in response to a mate (which means there are Gethenians who have both fathered and mothered different children). This reframing of gender was revolutionary in 1969, and the book remains a masterpiece — in its interrogation of sexuality and gender, The Left Hand of Darkness explores even bigger questions of how we humans relate to each other, as individuals and societies, as friends and lovers. It is also the best example of Le Guin’s anthropological instincts (inherited from her parents) and her stories’ unending curiosity for the infinite vagaries of human experience: “Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars — the other kinds of men, the other lives?”
Where to go next: “The Matter of Seggri,” The Dispossessed
Fans of The Left Hand of Darkness would do well to check out the short story “The Matter of Seggri,” originally collected in The Birthday of the World. This story also hails from the Hainish Cycle, and like The Left Hand of Darkness it features Ekumen researchers observing the titular planet. Like Gethen, Seggri has radically different gender norms; here, men are separated from their families at puberty and grouped in male-only enclaves, never to see their female family and friends again except for breeding purposes. It is another mind-expanding interrogation of sex and gender roles, with plenty of empathy for different ways of life.
The Dispossessed is probably Le Guin’s second-most-famous science-fiction novel, and similarly set somewhere in the Hainish universe. Its depiction of an anarchist utopia makes it one of Le Guin’s more political works, which explains why Occupy protesters once took to the streets with shields fashioned in the shape of its cover.
Where to start: “Brothers and Sisters”/”A Week in the Country”/”Unlocking the Air”
As with Earthsea and the Ekumen, many of Le Guin’s realistic fiction is set under one roof. Here, it’s the fictional Eastern European country of Orsinia. The triptych described above follows one family, the Fabbres, as they experience Orsinia throughout the 20th century. The country is still full of pre-industrial farms and quarries in “Brothers and Sisters,” but by “Unlocking the Air” the country’s communist regime is falling apart in the face of popular protest. Le Guin’s description of the latter, her poetic realization of the dream of revolution, is unforgettable: “Thousands and thousands and thousands of people stood on the slanting pavement before the palace. Snow sparkled in the air, and the people sang. You know the song, that old song with words like ‘land,’ ‘love,’ ‘free,’ in the language you have known the longest. Its words make stone part from stone, its words prevent tanks, its words transform the world, when it is sung at the right time by the right people, after enough people have died for singing it.”
These stories were originally published separately (the first two in 1976’s Orsinian Tales, the last in an eponymous 1996 collection), but they are grouped together at the beginning of Le Guin’s massive 2012 short-story collection The Unreal and the Real, and together form an incredible introduction to Le Guin’s non-fantastical fiction.
Where to go next: Malafrena, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”
For those readers captivated by Orsinia, Le Guin once wrote a whole novel, Malafrena, set in the country during the 1820s and written in the Tolstoy-esque style of 19th-century literature.
Outside of Orsinia, one of Le Guin’s most famous short stories is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Like a fable, it imagines a far-away country, but the hypothetical society of Omelas is imaginable on the Earth we know. Le Guin’s premise (borrowed from William James, she said) is thus: Is a happy, just, peaceful society worth the cost of one person’s miserable suffering? Readers might find themselves debating the answer and exploring the questions it raises for a long time after.
Where to start: No Time To Spare
Le Guin’s last published book is a collection of posts from the blog she updated regularly from 2010 through 2017. Though Le Guin often poo-pooed her nonfiction abilities (“writing essays has always been tough work for me and only occasionally rewarding,” she writes at the beginning), the pieces in No Time To Spare are often wickedly funny and full of insight into a wide spectrum of topics, from politics to literature to her cat Pard (those posts are known as “The Annals of Pard”). Le Guin was writing these pieces in her eighties, so there are also plenty of thoughts about aging — especially her anger at younger people for not taking old people seriously, or assuming they had nothing but spare time. As Le Guin wrote in response to such an assumption from a Harvard alumni questionnaire: “My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time.”Buy it here.
Where to go next: The Wave in the Mind, Steering the Craft
For Le Guin essays that were actually written as essays rather than blog posts, readers can check out her collection The Wave in the Mind. Her other primary nonfiction work was mainly geared around passing on her experience and expertise with writing, in books like Steering the Craft.