Five Bite-Sized Suggestions on Where to Get Started Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

You should read everything Le Guin ever wrote, but here are some quick options

My literary hero, Ursula K. Le Guin, creator of worlds, challenger of the pompous and complacent, inspirer of generations of writers from Salman Rushdie to Neil Gaiman to N.K. Jemisin, died. I never met her, never saw her read, never wrote her an email, but she changed my life. No other author can be as lyrical without becoming enamored of their own lyricism, as straightforward and clear without being blunt and empty. If you are lucky enough to read her, she will change your brain. Bite-sized options to follow, but here are her most important books:

  • The Dispossessed, set on two moons stuck in mutual orbit — one lush capitalist, the other desert-anarchist. It is an honest exploration of anarcho-syndicalism and capitalism, both their flaws and benefits.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness explores a world where gender doesn’t exist — the entire population is androgynous, going into kemmer (basically “heat”) once a month, with an equal chance of becoming male or female before reverting back to androgynes unless, of course, there’s a pregnancy. It’s taken for granted today that gender is a fluid, mostly societally-determined construct, but a half-century ago, Le Guin was already writing lines like “[t]he king was pregnant.”
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, aside from having the most satisfying approach to magic across all modern fantasy, is a beautiful fable on the importance of accepting change and seeking balance. Anyone who dismisses it as a children’s book (or at least only a children’s book) does themselves a grave disservice.
Four of Ursula Le Guin's books, across time
I love how Le Guin’s book covers track the changing perceptions of the wider literary world — from ultra-pulpy to super-artsy

These three are her heavy-hitters, the books that redefined what two genres and literature as a whole could do, and if you want to immediately dive into the deep waters of this literary Titan, you should get those first. However, the good news about a writer with a 60-year long career is that she wrote a lot. There are multiple smaller works for those who want to spend half an hour getting their toes wet instead. The five suggestions that follow will take between 10 and 30 minutes of your time.

Read everything, but start here

  1. “The Word of Unbinding”
    Here is the first glimmer of the Earthsea stories that would later reshape fantasy. It’s an incredibly simple, incredibly deep tale. It is the story of a wizard trapped by the minions of a dark, magic-wielding warlord, and his multiple attempts at escape, until he sees there is only one way to end the conflict. I write about it in more detail here.
  2. “Semley’s Necklace”
    This is the first entry in the Hainish cycle, a loosely connected series of short stories and novels that share a universe in which the ancient, highly advanced humanoid inhabitants of the planet Hain-Davenant seed multiple colony worlds (including Earth) with genetically modified versions of themselves. Their galactic Empire collapses and leaves their client worlds to evolve on their own for millennia, before a new, more democratic “League of Worlds” rises from the ashes of the fallen Hainish people. It solves the Star Trek problem (wherein every alien species is actually just a human in funny makeup) by giving all different planets common ancestry. “Semley’s Necklace” concerns the inhabitant of one of these now-backwards planets seeking to recover an important heirloom from a museum in which a League anthropologist has placed it. It follows so perfectly the fantasy convention of leaving home, changing yourself, and coming back to a changed world, but the setting is science fiction, with spaceships, lightspeed, and galactic governance. The melding of science fiction with a fantasy feel is made possible by Clarke’s Third Law, which states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This interplay between the fantasy perspective (for the main character, a rube princess from a backwater world) and the science-fiction perspective (for the reader, who recognizes all the technology and conventions of SF) is delicious, and is a good example of how Le Guin uses the conventions of the field in which she works, but also reshapes them. To give a hint of this dynamic, here’s the opening paragraph:

    How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?–planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

  3. “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas”
    This story, also known as “The One You Read in High School,” is a perfect little allegory. Le Guin describes in broad strokes the happy city of Omelas in her characteristic bright and shining prose, but also explores, in prose no less evocative, the dark bargain at the center of this perfect place. It is a wonderful answer to the moral absurdity of Utilitarianism, and an important story for everyone who lives in our current society, where most of us enjoy cheap shoes and laptops (like the one I’m currently typing on) but try as hard as we can not to think of who’s making the shoes and circuit boards.
  1. Book Reviews
    Ursula Le Guin at rostrum
    She stopped writing fiction later in life, but stayed active in other ways. Credit: Photos © 2014 Jack Liu

    Le Guin stopped writing books later in life, but she didn’t stop writing about them. If you only want to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with her analytical flair, she wrote a lot of reviews. There’s Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (not effusively positive, but he said he’d rather be chided by Le Guin than worshipped by another reviewer), China Mieville’s Three Moments of an Explosion, and Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights, just to get you started. Her opinion of these works, informed by decades of reading and writing, are some of the best examples of modern book reviews. They aren’t simple vehicles for front-cover blurbs — they fairly weigh the good and the bad of each with a clarity of prose and depth of understanding that is a trademark of everything Le Guin did.

  2. Commentary
    Ursula K. Le Guin was a lot of things, but she was never silent or out of touch. Throughout her life, she wrote about art, about politics, about people. Her fiction is the biggest gift she left behind, but it’s not the only one. My favorite is when she took umbrage at a book review that was dismissive of genre fiction and wrote a short pulp pastiche, “On Serious Literature.” Another in the same vein is when Important Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro worried that readers of his most recent novel, which uses the tropes of fantasy other authors spent decades refining, would “be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Her response is a delightful, bristling defence of genre. Even after the National Book Awards honored her for lifetime achievement, even after the Library of America printed her books while she was still alive (an honor shared by only one other author, Philip Roth), she was still going to bat for SFF. Her perception of the book was not kind — as fantasy, it was a failure. Her last line throws shade as only an 80+ year old grandma could, enough to blot out the sun:

    I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

    She also commented on current events. In one letter to the editor at The Oregonian (imagine receiving a letter to the editor and realizing it’s from Le Guin), she attacked the concept of Trumpian “alternative facts.” In another, she took issue with the newspaper’s sympathetic coverage of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Her comments apply to the equally confusing sympathetic coverage outlets like The New York Times keep giving to white nationalists:

    “Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t The Oregonian talk to the people who live there?”

Finally, there’s her National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. Maybe some people there expected a little old lady to deliver gratitude-filled pablum, but that’s not what they got. At an event partially sponsored by Amazon, with Amazon representatives in the audience, she unleashed a Jeremiad against “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.” She said, “[w]e live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” You should really watch the whole thing below:

Now cracks a noble heart

Le Guin is the greatest American writer of the last century. In these five suggestions, sadly too meager to get a full idea of the colossus that was Ursula K. Le Guin, there are hints of her vivid, crystalline prose and depth of feeling, of her incisive intellect, and of her unerring morality. She was a gift, a node of sanity in a world of increasing confusion, and she is irreplaceable.

If you want to go deeper, I suggest (in addition to The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and A Wizard of Earthsea) her short story collections, The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real. Myself, I will soon be enjoying her definitive Library of America collection of science-fiction, The Hainish Novels and Stories.

Lincoln in the Bardo Redux: Still Weird, Still Great

Most weeks, this blog is about a different book. Lincoln in the Bardo is so important that it gets two posts. It’s seriously good. It’s hard to call this stuff, but it might be the next big thing people look back at in a century and think “Whoa, there was a forking path in the history of art.” One of the areas in which Saunders was most inventive was how he constructed 166 completely distinct characters in a single book, so I asked him about that.

I was lucky enough to go see Saunders speak about his book. The event took place in a church, because the demand was so heavy that the nearby bookstore couldn’t accommodate it. High ceilings, arches, stained glass, and a guy from Chicago standing at the pulpit talking about art. It was a really great night, and I got to ask him a question about what his process was for making all those different voices sound so very different. What follows is an inexpertly copied transcript, with changes made for the various uncertainties of human speech (ums, ahs, you knows). My question was about how different each character sounded, but the answer I got was about his entire philosophy of writing. It was extremely gratifying. Thanks, George!

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He drew me a ghost and a Lincoln inside his signature. I mean, he drew that for everyone, but he also drew it for me.

Anyway, here it is:

Q: When I was reading, what I was most impressed with was how sharply distinct each voice was, and doing that with 160-odd characters, even the ones that are just there for like, half a page, hello-goodbye, I was just wondering what went into making those voices so clear and distinct.

A: Oh thank you, yeah. You know, in my short fiction, it’s always in a contemporary voice; I’ll often have two or three characters, and I really try hard to distinguish them in voice, and that means going really overboard on two or three voices. In this book as soon as I realized how many people there were going to be, there’s a hundred-sixty-six, I thought, I have to maybe scale it down just a bit so I can sort of make that many versions. And the approach really was, I mean, my whole thing on writing is, it’s based on a three-part mantra. Donald Barthelme said, ‘The writer is a person who, embarking on her task, does not know what to do.’ Gerald Stern, in a slightly different register, and I’ll clean this up because we’re in church, ‘If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love, then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.’ And then Einstein, taking it up another level, as he always did, said, ‘No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception,’ which for artists is a real deep thing. If the thing only is what you thought it was gonna be, then you’ve disappointed. So, in my process, I’m always just kind of proceeding at speed, trying to have as few notions about it as I can, almost imagining like there’s a meter in my head with ‘P’ over here for positive, ‘N’ over here for negative, and the job is just to read, and revise, and watch that needle, without any sort of attachment to where you wanted to be. So, it’s up in the positive, if it goes in the negative, you don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh no it didn’t,’ and you also don’t do the thing that says, ‘I suck. I have to go back to law school.’ You just say, what you kinda do is, and my thing is you sorta turn to the story and you say, ‘Hey, I notice you’re down in the negative here,’ and the story will go, ‘No I’m not,’ and you say, ‘Well, I kinda think you are, it’s okay, I still love you,’ and it says, ‘Ah yeah, well,’ and you say, ‘Well, what’s the problem, what’s the problem with the story?’ And it goes, ‘I’m boring.’

‘You are boring, you poor thing. Can you tell me, where are you boring?’

‘Page six.’

‘Ok, I agree. Where exactly?’

‘Third line.’

And you go to the third line, and it says like, ‘Bill sat at the empty table, the black planar expanse, the dark flatness,’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’

So it’s a very intuitive approach, and it’s kinda based on the idea that when we’re reading, something crazy’s going on in the mind; it’s so intelligent, and it’s picking up so many signals off the text that are kinda subverbal, you couldn’t articulate them. So in that heightened beautiful state, reader and writer together kind of reach this communion, basically. So, when I’m writing I’m trying to make the voices (to come back, finally, to your question), I think what I do is I try to be as deep in the text as I can, and then I turn over and say OK I need a ghost over here, and then, this is the scary part, I just trust the verbal overflow. You know at that point, a voice will appear, as you’re typing, bom bom bom. So, the trick is to not say, ‘I don’t want that ghost,’ or ‘What does that ghost mean?’ but just like, ‘Go ahead, tell me,’ you know. And so it’s sort of a sustained improvisation, and even with that number of characters you kinda remember what you’ve done before, and your subconscious is moving you away from those, so it’s kind of a crazy process of believing there’s a part of your mind that’s smarter than the surface part, and then sort of allowing that to come through.

So there’s a small piece of George Saunders’ writing process, which I was super excited to hear. Whether he’s the greatest living American writer is a matter of opinion, but he’s doubtlessly in the running. Part of why he’s where he is, and part of what his answer makes clear, is he takes his writing as seriously as a heart surgeon takes his work. He’s not just, you know, telling some story or whatever. He’s telling the perfect story, the only story that could grow in the space in which he’s working. If you haven’t checked out his entire opus, you really should.