The simple greatness of Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Science Fiction Novels

Her early work (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) contains all the pulpy goodness of 60s SF but is still distinctly Le Guin.

 

Science Fiction is beautiful. It can transport you to a planet of endless winter, make you feel the cold air prickle your lungs, see the strange clear emptiness of the sky. Science Fiction is powerful. It can make you question the foundations of human identity. Sturgeon’s Law, posited by Theodore Sturgeon in response to attacks on the quality of SF, states that 90% of everything is crap (including the High Literature from whose peaks some critics scold speculative fiction). He’s not wrong. In my early 20s I was under a different impression — almost all the SF I read at that point was steeped in beauty and shot through with clarity, because I was reading mostly Le Guin. Science Fiction, as practiced by Ursula K. Le Guin, is perfection, even in her early days when she was still finding her footing.

I picked up the Library of America 2-volume Hainish Novels and Stories a while back. It is a breathtaking example of just how beautiful physical books can be, and it contains most of Le Guin’s SF novels and many of her stories. After a few months just staring at the talismanic presence above my desk, I actually opened vol. I and read the first three novels of her Hainish cycle — Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions.

If you want a cheaper option, just those three novels are collected here: https://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Exile-Illusion-Rocannons-Illusions-ebook/dp/B01MQIG9PL/

le guin science fiction books
Library of America does good work — these are beautiful.

A Summary

The three books are a loosely related trilogy chronicling the efforts of the League of All Worlds to prepare for the oncoming Enemy, their subsequent failure, and what happens next. The books don’t bother with the actual war, fiery space battles, or high statecraft. The collapse of galactic society happens almost in the background, and Le Guin focuses on the small, human stories of those who have to live through it.

In Rocannon’s World, the title ethnologist is sent to further study Fomalhaut II, an unadvanced planet whose people the League is attempting to train up for use in the coming War. His ship is destroyed by rebel elements, and the novel is him journeying across the strange planet to find a way to notify the League and retaliate.

In Planet of Exile, Terran colonists came to the planet Werel to bring the inhabitants into the League, again in an attempt to build their strength for the coming War with the Enemy. The war starts right after they land, and some of them take the ship and go back to help. The book starts 600 years later and follows the interactions between the native Tevar, a semi-nomadic culture whose major variance from Terran-standard is catlike eyes, and the colonial remnants, who call themselves Alterrans. Distrust becomes grudging respect becomes unity as both cultures work together to prepare for the dual threat of the oncoming (15-year-long) winter and barbarians who are marauding their way south.

In City of Illusions, the victory of the Enemy and the dissolution of the League is an established fact. The Shing control Earth and have made it fallow — the population is sparse, great forests and prairies are reclaiming forgotten cities, and humanity lives in small enclaves scattered throughout the wilderness. If they attempt to build anything of greatness (advanced science, a spaceship, a true civilization) the Shing wipe them out. Enter Falk, a man with cat’s eyes who wakes with no memory in the middle of the Eastern Forest. He spends five years with the kindly House who nursed him back to health, and then he goes on a mission to the Shing city of Es Toch (apparently in Colorado) to find out who he was.

The greatness of these novels isn’t so much their plot — the outline for 1 and 3 are fairly basic journey narratives, and book 2 is a forbidden love Romeo/Juliet thing with barbarians thrown in. It’s not the plot, though, it’s what you do with it. Shakespeare stole the plot of Hamlet outright from Thomas Kyd, a guy whose name no one knows. The framework, the general structure of the story is not what’s important here. It’s what Ursula Le Guin does with it. Steak is a basic foodstuff, but there’s a huge difference between well-done with ketchup and medium-rare with béarnaise sauce. The greatness of these early novels lies in Ursula’s knack for invention and cognitive estrangement, her descriptive power, and her anthropological depth.

Games of Perception

Cognitive estrangement is the gap between the reader’s reality and the alternate reality presented by Science Fiction — that rubber-band snap of “oh, that’s not how things are here” that serves as a jumping-off point for further reflection. Le Guin is a master of it. Throughout these books, there is a shifting of perspective, both between the “what is” of reality and the “what is not” of fiction, and between our perception of basic objects and how an alien or far-future society might see those items. That second part, where the characters in the story don’t recognize futuristic objects, isn’t technically cognitive estrangement, it’s more dramatic irony, but the effect is still intriguing.

 

  • Erkar — In City of Exile, Rolery, a member of the nomadic Tevar tribe, has married into the Terran colonist society and sees a picture that confuses her. She asks what it is.

 

“And that?” [asked Rolery]

“An erkar.”

“I listen again,” Rolery said politely — she was on her best manners at every moment now — but when Seiko Esmit seemed not to understand the formality, she asked, “What is an erkar?”

The farborn woman pushed out her lips a little and said indifferently, “A…thing to ride in, like a…well, you don’t even use wheels, how can I tell you? You’ve seen our wheeled carts? Yes? Well, this was a cart to ride in, but it flew in the sky.

An aircar — the way Le Guin constructed this exchange, the reader’s realization of what the erkar is hits at the same moment that Rolery’s does. It’s a wonderful piece of narrative.

 

  • The entire United States — In City of Illusions, Terran society fell over a millennium ago. Everything the main character sees on his journey is after centuries of degradation. When he crosses the Mississippi from a tributary river on a glider, he sees it as we never could:

 

“The days and the river went on, flowing with him, until on one still gray afternoon the world opened slowly out and out into an awesome breadth, an immense plain of muddy waters under an immense sky: the confluence of the forest river with the Inland River. It was no wonder they had heard of the Inland River even in the deep ignorance of their isolation hundreds of miles back east in the Houses: it was so huge even the Shing could not hide it. A vast and shining desolation of yellow-gray waters spread from the last crowns and islets of the flooded forest on and on west to a far shore of hills. Falk soared like one of the river’s low-flying blue herons over the meeting-place of the waters. He landed on the western bank and was, for the first time in his memory, out of the forest.”

The Mighty Mississippi
Yep, it’s big.

In the far future of humanity, after the collapse, even something as well-known as the Mississippi River is shrouded in rumor and darkness, an unexpected glory to behold. On a barbarian planet, a local woman is completely unfamiliar with the concept of a flying vehicle. This dissociation between how things are and how things could be and the tension between the two is vastly pleasurable, and instances of this happen again and again throughout Le Guin’s work.

Exploding Starships and the Mississippi River

Other authors bring you to another world. Le Guin plants that world right inside you — she has such a strong conception of place and such power of description that she can make whatever she’s describing part of you. The passage about the Mississippi River above is one example. Another is the very beginning of Rocannon’s World, in which Rocannon’s ship is destroyed right off:

“A high tree of blinding white grew quickly, soundlessly up the sky from behind South Ridge. Guards on the towers of Hallan Castle cried out, striking bronze on bronze. Their small voices and clangor of warning were swallowed by the roar of sound, the hammerstroke of wind, the staggering of the forest.”

She could have just written, “Rocannon’s ship exploded.” Instead, she takes a few extra sentences to describe the harsh light of the explosion, the reaction of the indigenous people, the wash of sound and wind, the shaking of the trees — Le Guin anchors the reader so solidly in the world she builds that the only comparable talent I can think of is Tolkien.

Le Guin and Leakey

The sheer depth of the alternate societies in Le Guin’s work sets her apart from lesser SF writers, and that talent is on display here. The rules, structure, and mores of every place that Le Guin writes about are clear and intricate, and indicate an attention to detail lacking in a lot of other speculative fiction. All three books are filled with multiple societies, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll focus on fragments of two of them:

  • Rocannon’s World is inhabited by a stratified, medieval-level society. The dark-skinned, light-haired Angyar rule over the light-skinned, dark-haired Olgyior in a feudal system filled with castles, blood-oaths, forays, and marriage pacts. When all of Rocannon’s friends and colleagues are murdered, Mogien, the Angyar lord he’s been staying with and studying, pledges his sword to the defense of the League (against interstellar bombers). As Mogien drinks in sympathy with Rocannon, he states, “May our enemy die without sons,” which is a perfect, jewel-bright encapsulation of their society — what greater curse in a rigid patriarchy than to die without sons?

 

  • Planet of Exile  has the Tevar, the indigenous semi-nomadic people who spend the long summer in tents in the Summerlands, and only come together as one in the Winter City, an underground warren where their grain stores are buried. In order to start clan meetings, everyone bangs on rocks in the stone circle in a cacophony until the chief comes and starts banging his own rock. Those to the right and left of him match his rhythm until everyone is hitting in unison. Any meeting starts with a mystical invocation of its ultimate goal — unity and agreement.

Le Guin builds societies of such complexity and detail that it feels like they would exist even if we weren’t there to watch. Their foundations are stone-solid and deep.

The Late Pulpalignean Era

These three books are early, not as polished, from the “Late Pulpalignean Era” as Le Guin calls it. The pulpiness is part of what I love about these though — the laser guns and barbarians. As Le Guin advanced through her career, she moved more away from violence and pulp (in her two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, I don’t think the protagonist kills anyone at all. In fact, the latter is mostly an alien physicist talking to other alien physicists), but in these, people burn down castles, stab each other, burn peoples’ heads off with laser guns, and just generally treat the reader to a smorgasbord of aggression. These books are still distinctly Le Guin, with their tight prose, strong sense of place, and anthropological depth, but they have a pleasant roughness to them, like a chunk of amethyst pulled straight from the living Earth.

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” https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/
    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” https://www.amazon.com/Semleys-Necklace-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01NCJ1O13/
    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” https://www.amazon.com/Ones-Who-Walk-Away-Omelas-ebook/dp/B01N0PZ35J/
    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.