Science-fiction and fantasy fans are sad to note the recent passing of celebrated author Ursula K. Le Guin at the age of 88. Le Guin, a popular author known for her thought-provoking novels, added literary depth and intellectualism to a field that does not always receive the recognition it deserves. Le Guin is also honored as an early feminist pioneer who often used the flexible medium of science fiction to examine difficult issues our society is grappling with today including gender, sexuality, and equal rights.
Le Guin’s books became widely read worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages. It is hard to overestimate her impact on the modern science fiction and fantasy landscape since many of her books, including some of her most popular, have been in print for almost 50 years. Despite the perspicacity and depth of her novels, Le Guin was a prolific and versatile author, with 22 novels, a dozen books of poetry, more than 100 short stories, seven collections of essays, 13 books for children, and five volumes of translation all to her name.
As we honor Ms. Le Guin’s memory, here are four of her most important works to check out.
Perhaps the best-known of all of Le Guin’s work, The Left Hand of Darkness is considered to be a groundbreaking science-fiction novel thanks to its examination of the role of gender in culture and society. The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a human, Genly Ai, sent to the alien world of Winter. The natives of this planet have a totally different concept of what gender means because they are generally androgynous and can choose or change their gender when required or when they desire to. Ai’s goal is to help Winter as it takes its part in the growing number of intergalactic planets and cultures. However, Ai is forced to confront his own discomfort and lack of understanding to carry out his mission. Like many great science fiction novels, the author intended this book to be a “thought experiment” designed to explore the nature of human societies. “I eliminated gender to find out what was left,” she once said in an interview.
One of the most memorable of Le Guin’s novels, The Lathe of Heaven is about an ordinary man, George Orr, who finds to his dismay that he has the unusual ability to control the real world through his dreams. George doesn’t just see the future in his dreams; he actually has the ability to change events, for better or for worse, based on what occurs while he is sleeping. Instead of trying to use his power to manipulate others, George desperately seeks help, eventually turning to psychotherapist Dr. William Haber who assures George he can help him. Too late George realizes that Haber has a plan of his own. This novel uses its science fiction conceit to explore what can happen when people try to control things that are uncontrollable.
Le Guin’s Earthsea chronicles are among her best-loved books. Influenced by other fantasy giants like Tolkien, the Earthsea novels concern a fictional world where magic is widespread and taught as a science and balance between good and evil is seen as the goal. As the first of the six novels of the series, A Wizard of Earthsea concerns Ged, the mightiest sorcerer in Earthsea. Though he becomes a respected wizard, Ged spent his youth as the foolhardy Sparrowhawk and accidentally released a terrible evil on the world in his reckless quest for more power and knowledge. The novel chronicles Ged’s attempts to tame the evil he unleashed and to restore balance to Earthsea. Though the first three of the Earthsea novels were written for young adults, grown-ups will find this series enchanting too.
Rocannon’s World is notable for two main reasons. First, it was Le Guin’s first published novel and is worth including on this list for any fan who wants to observe how Le Guin’s writing progressed throughout her career. Second, Rocannon’s World is also the first of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, which discuss the fate of a humanoid diaspora spread across the galaxy over thousands of years. Rocannon’s World focuses specifically on a world that is shared by three different races - the cave-dwelling Gdemiar, elvish Fiia, and warriorlike Liuar – and how they react when their planet is invaded by a conquering army. Human scientist Rocannon observes the conflict and eventually leads the fight against the invaders.