Hello, fellow travelers. Today we’re going to talk about the life and works of Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the grandest dames of SF/F, who died on January 22, 2018.
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I first encountered Le Guin’s works by picking up a copy of The Dispossessed in my local bookstore at the age of 13, purely for the cover. Then a school friend asked me if I’d read the Earthsea books — the answer was no. I’ve been building my collection ever since.
My grief at her passing is not about her life — she lived a long, productive, and prolific one. It’s entirely for me. It’s about knowing that now, I will never meet her. Now, I’ll never get one of my many books signed. Now, there will never be another installment of words from a woman whose writing changed the way my brain works.
Some of you share my grief; others may only have heard of her. For all of you, here are a few links about her and her life:
– In 1987, Le Guin beautifully turned down blurbing an all-male anthology.
– John Scalzi wrote about encountering her work for the first time as a teenager.
– The NYT obit charts the arc of her career.
– Le Guin gave a prescient speech about art and profit at the National Book Awards in 2014.
– And this commencement address she gave at a women’s college in 1983 is about rejecting the language of masculinity (and made me cry).
The reason her works were so influential for me, so pivotal to my development as a person and a reader, is that many of them were my first exposure to concepts that now, as an adult and a citizen of the 21st century, we may take for granted. And she wasn’t subtle about it; I’ve heard from readers who came to Le Guin in recent years that they were annoyed by some of her more didactic prose (The Dispossessed is full of it). While it’s basically impossible to find any true “comps” for Le Guin, whose style was so uniquely her own, I offer you a few favorites alongside current writers who have played with those same concepts. May you read them with an open mind and in good health!
A story can explode your brain: The Lathe of Heaven
This is the one I’ve reread the most. In an alternate version of Portland, Oregon, a man named George Orr is convinced he can change the world with his dreams. Featuring a domineering psychiatrist, a love story, and turtle aliens (no really), this book took my brain places it could never have imagined, but that I’ve been revisiting ever since.
Current comp: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (I’m still picking up the pieces of my brain that this book exploded)
Gender is fluid: The Left Hand of Darkness
On the planet known as Winter, gender is intermittent and changeable. The humanoid inhabitants take on gender only when mating, in response to their partners’ and their own desires, and not necessarily the same gender every time. For interplanetary ambassador Genly Ai, this is puzzling enough; then he gets sucked into a political struggle involving warring nations.
Current comps: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (you try explaining gender markers to a sentient spaceship, see if you do any better)
The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (high fantasy plus LOTS of varying gender structures plus LOTS OF BLOOD AND GUTS)
Our present social/political structure isn’t inevitable or unmutable: The Dispossessed
Shevek is a physicist living on an anarchist planet. When he discovers that his world is not as free as it seems, he begins a journey to the neighboring, consumerist/capitalist planet of Urras to try to find a balance.
Current comp: Infomocracy by Malka Older (could micro-democracy work?)
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway (a nesting-doll of a book that also meditates deeply on direct democracy and surveillance)
The nuclear family is not the only family: “Mountain Ways” (read it at Clarkesworld, also collected in The Birthday of the World and Other Stories)
On the planet O, marriages involve 4 people, two of whom you’re expected to have sex with and one of whom you’re not allowed. When Shahes and Enno fall in love, they must try to find a way to honor their traditions while honoring their hearts.
Current comp: The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (because found families can include people who are humans, aliens, AI, you name it)
A fantasy world can grow and change with you: The Earthsea Cycle
A Wizard of Earthsea is a deeply male book — men have real magic, women are witches, men who want magic can’t sleep with women, also there’s a coming-of-age story. But with each successive book in the cycle, which now contains five novels and a short story collection, Le Guin unpacked more and more of this sexist trope, and expanded her world to offer new vistas and new opportunities.
Current comp: The World of Riverside, by Ellen Kushner and now many others (Swordspoint has a lot of very satisfying, vaguely European men who love each other and also occasionally stab each other with swords; each new addition brings more diversity and representation to the story, which is still growing)
Short stories can be just as satisfying as a novel: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
This collection contains short stories playing in her Hainish worlds, Earthsea, and lots of others that only exist for the space of the story. I cannot tell you how many times I read my copy; enough that it fell apart beyond repair.
Current comp: The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (which maybe one day I will stop talking about, but that day is not today)
And that’s a wrap. You can (and should!) enter our very exciting library cart giveaway right here. You can find all of the books recommended in this newsletter on a handy Goodreads shelf. If you’re interested in more science fiction and fantasy talk, you can catch me and my co-host Sharifah on the SFF Yeah! podcast. For many many more book recommendations you can find me on the Get Booked podcast with the inimitable Amanda.
Your fellow booknerd,