Two children went to the same school, and graduated in the same year. But they did not know each other. Much later, they would correspond but never meet. The boy went before his time, raging at the demons of his mind. The girl soothed the demons, and made dragons who rode the winds of the farthest shore.
Philip K Dick and Ursula K le Guin. Two of the great novelists of the twentieth century, who taught us how to render the everyday into wonder, and the wondrous into the everyday. Two paths, one among the stars and galaxies, the other in the neural circuits of the mind. Rugged and tender, their telling took science fiction to places it had never gone before.
Now Le Guin is dead at 88, leaving behind a body of work extraordinary in its variety. Where to start? Which province of her immeasurably generous and hospitable demesnes should we first experience?
A few months ago, I gave my 15-year-old nephew a volume of Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. For those weaned on Harry Potter and Hogwarts, the school of wizarding in Roke, the magical heart of the Earthsea archipelago, might come as a culture shock. As it must have done for young Sparrowhawk, a shepherd from the island of Gont, but possessed of great magical powers.
Prickly and awkward, Sparrowhawk’s initial missteps at school are essential for his growth and self-awareness. But when the young mage leaves school behind and steps into the world outside, we realise that his curriculum is in fact just beginning. In Le Guin’s world, the “truename” of a person – or being – is key to control and mastery and no creature would willingly cede their truename, for to do so would be to give up all power to the namer. But what if the demons or shadows you have created have no name? The first volume of the trilogy hinges on this crux, as we follow Sparrowhawk to the bleak outreaches of Pendor.
That book we all remember
A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968, but the very next year, Le Guin produced an even more wondrous thing, The Left Hand of Darkness. Set in the Hainish universe of her first novel Rocannon’s World (1966), Left Hand begins with Genly Ai, an envoy of a planetary confederation, visiting the winter planet of Gethen to persuade them to join the Ekumenian alliance. Gethen’s inhabitants are “ambisexual”, in that they have no fixed sex and adopt sexual characteristics only once a month (kemmer). The rest of the time they are in somer.
Genly Ai’s mission is soon mired in mistrust and mutual incomprehension, and the Gethenian prime minister, Estraven, is exiled for treason, throwing both together on an eighty-day trek across the icy desolations of Gethen. More than once kemmer sets in, and the two have to learn about each other’s differences in a setting where no evasion is possible.
The Left Hand of Darkness won both Hugo and Nebula, the two major prizes in SF. More importantly, it completely rewrote the rules of fantasy fiction. In its exploration of gender, it was echoing contemporary debates in feminism, and working out their ramifications in a society where gender is fluid. Nearly half a century after it was written, the majesty and tenderness of Left Hand still leaves one breathless, and believing that such a world may yet come to pass.
Cherished in every form she wrote
Meanwhile, Le Guin was stringing together like a number of exquisite short stories appealing to readerships both young and old, and well beyond traditional SF. Some were part of the Hainish cycle, and some standalone, first gathered together in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). They are as good an entry point into Le Guin’s world as any, and I have to exercise all my restraint from giving away the storyline of “The Rule of Names” (please avoid reading the Wikipedia stub for the same reason!)
And then there’s The Dispossessed, perhaps the most fiercely intelligent of her novels, about an “anarchist utopia”, in the twin planets of Urras and Anarres. If you wish to read one SF novel which examines how a fully realised social system works in fiction, go no further.
As the years have gone by, the gifts from Le Guin’s mind have become more cherished—whether in fiction, poetry or plain speech. For many, her work provides a moral and literary compass by which to navigate a world where fewer and fewer demands are made of our imagination. It is a mercy, I suppose, that so few of her works have been rendered into film (with the exception of a Studio Ghibli misadventure with Earthsea), leaving us free to exercise our imagination and see sights such as these:
“Arren saw the dragons soaring and circling on the morning wind, and his heart leapt them with a joy, a joy of fulfilment that was like pain. All the glory of mortality was in that flight. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, and utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech, and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of flight there was a fierce, willed concord.”