Where to start with Tales From Earthsea author Ursula K. Le Guin
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Ursula K. Le Guin
Why it’s daunting: In the pantheon of science-fiction and fantasy authors, Ursula K. Le Guin holds a unique position. Coming from a literary and academic background (her parents were eminent anthropologists), she saw her first genre fiction published in the ’60s, when she was in her 30s—after which she swiftly became one of the first writers embraced by both the science-fiction and literary worlds. Fantasies like the iconic Earthsea series gained her mainstream success, while deft, poignant political novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Dispossessed established her as one of science fiction’s deepest thinkers.
Her reputation is formidable: Leftism, linguistics, gender, and Eastern philosophy are among the many themes she explores in her work, and her catalog reflects a staggering range of settings and styles, from the dystopian, pop-culture-referencing density of The Lathe Of Heaven to the stately Virgil revisionism of Lavinia. And while Earthsea is easy to follow, her other major series (if you can call it that) is the Hainish Cycle—a confederation of stand-alone novels and stories that are as loosely linked as the planets of her far-future milieu. It’s ironic that Le Guin, one of the most humane of all science-fiction giants, has produced a body of work that can seem sprawling and daunting.
Possible gateway: The Dispossessed
Why: Published in 1974, The Dispossessed is one of the major works of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. Set in a future universe where the Hainish—a race of humanoids responsible for sentient life on dozens of worlds (Earth included)—is establishing contact with its far-flung offspring, the book takes place on twin planets, Anarres and Urras, which orbit each other. Shevek, a brilliant physicist on the agrarian, anarchist Anarres, travels to Urras out of frustration with the paradoxical bureaucracy of his home world. Urras closely resembles Earth in the near future, including a variety of warring nations that reflect a number of political systems, from state socialism to capitalism. As Shevek’s severe view of political reality is challenged, he discovers he’s a pawn in the machinations of both Anarres’ non-government and his hosts on Urras.
The plot borders on perfunctory, but it’s the way Le Guin elaborates upon it that makes The Dispossessed so stunning. Told in a staggered, asynchronous sequence that maximizes the emotional and philosophical impact of Shevek’s life, the story dives into the nature of political systems, the lack thereof, and everything from domesticity to parenthood. Not only does it rank among Le Guin’s best, most immediate work, the novel is a good point of entry to the Hainish Cycle. It sketches in enough details about the galaxy at large to give sufficient context, and the parallels between the political systems of Anarres and Urras and those of real-life, modern-day Earth elevates its resonance into the realm of pure allegory. And a potent one at that.
Next steps: The other major novel of the Hainish Cycle is 1969’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. But where The Dispossessed fixates on politics, Darkness ruminates more on gender, sexuality, and the nature of love itself. The main character, a Terran named Genly Ai, is an ethnologist sent to reach out to the ice-bound planet Gethen, a.k.a. Winter. There, he becomes embroiled in the life and hardships of a dishonored politician, not to mention the profound nature of the Gethenians’ innate androgyny. Not only does Le Guin draw from her family’s background in anthropology, she imbues her prose with a measured, poetic simplicity—a trademark of her work—as well as her progressive views. It’s a swift, gripping read, but it also quietly dramatizes the yin-and-yang metaphysical view that informs much of her work and complements the boys’ club of hard science fiction.
Earthsea remains Le Guin’s most beloved series. The original trilogy—A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore—was published between 1968 and 1972, and since it predated the current marketing pigeonhole known as young-adult literature, it found a widespread, all-ages audience in the same way the Harry Potter books were able to. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally, depending on whom you talk to), J.K. Rowling has been accused of appropriating some of Earthsea’s ideas for her books, particularly the character of Ged, a promising yet conflicted young wizard of Earthsea who attends a school for wizards. Regardless of those claims, the sprawling setting and mythos of the Earthsea trilogy resonate on an archetypal level that’s put it on par with The Lord Of The Rings. The trilogy’s sequels, Tehanu and The Other Wind, plus the short-story collection Tales From Earthsea, are essential pieces of Earthsea’s lyrical and deeply human saga. Le Guin’s pet themes of politics, language, and metaphysical balance are explored, but they’re done so in a far more subtle and organic way than in her other fiction.
Le Guin’s 1971 novel, The Lathe Of Heaven, is one of her most popular and enduring—in spite of being an oddity in her catalog, not to mention uncharacteristically dated. Written as a partial tribute to Philip K. Dick, the book’s setting is indeed strikingly PKD-esque: In the year 2002, the United States is in a state of economic, environmental, and political depression. When a power-hungry psychologist figures out how to harness the reality-changing dreams of a psychic patient, things go gonzo. It’s a psychedelic mindfuck in tune with the era in which the book was written, right down to references to Buddhism and The Beatles. Hippies are even directly mocked. The details of the book haven’t aged well; that’s always the danger of near-future science fiction. To its credit, though, Lathe is both poignant and pulpy, citing H.G. Wells and even Mad magazine by name as it probes the membrane between consciousness and reality.
Where not to start: The Hainish Cycle doesn’t need to be read in any particular order, and the books weren’t written in chronologic sequence. Accordingly, some are stronger than others. The first three books in the Cycle (and Le Guin’s first three novels overall) are Rocannon’s World, Planet Of Exile, and City Of Illusions, published between 1966 and 1967. They’re a lot of fun, but mostly, they read as trial runs for her mature Hainish novels; some characters, in particular the titular protagonist of Rocannon’s World, feel like embryonic versions of The Left Hand Of Darkness’ Genly Ai and others. And Le Guin had yet to clearly define her views of fantasy, science fiction, and the overlap (or lack thereof) of the two.
Le Guin is also a superb short-story writer, and many of those stories are part of Hainish or Earthsea canon. For instance, “Winter’s King” is a prequel to Darkness, and “The Word Of Unbinding,” her forerunner to Earthsea. The novels in those series, however, are much better introductions to her work. And while her various stand-alone novels—including her most recent, Lavinia—range from good to excellent, it’s much easier to get swept up in the scope, ambition, and invention of her series, not to mention her work as a whole.