Where to Start with Ursula K. Le Guin
October 21 marks the birthday of Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the most well-known and popular science fiction and fantasy authors living today. Over the course of her 40-year career, she's published dozens of novels, collections of short stories, essays, and volumes of poetry to critical acclaim; won the Hugo, Nebula, PEN-Malamud, and National Book Award; and pushed the boundaries of science fiction. Her masterful storytelling, which weaves together anthropology, issues of gender identity and sexuality, high fantasy, and sci-fi, has made her an American legend in literary fiction.
If you've never read Le Guin before, you're missing out on some great literature. You don’t have to be a hardcore fantasy fan to appreciate the beauty of Le Guin's writing, her wonderful storytelling, or the vivid fictional worlds she creates. If you want to celebrate this living legend's 88th, pick up a copy of one of her books at your library. We'll help you figure out where to start:
A Wizard of Earthsea: This classic about a young magician who hones his powers at a wizarding school on the fictional archipelago of Earthsea is one of Le Guin's most beloved novels. Originally published as a children's book in 1968, it's become widely regarded as a high fantasy novel, cited as an influence by David Mitchell and a "wellspring" of fantasy by Margaret Atwood. If you can't get enough of Earthsea after you finish this, check out the rest of the books in Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle to immerse yourself in the lore of this richly crafted world.
Left Hand of Darkness: This Hugo and Nebula winning science fiction novel, a hit upon its release in 1970, established Le Guin as one of the most influential science fiction authors and a pioneer in feminist fiction. The novel is famous for its setting, a fictional planet called Gethen where all inhabitants are ambisexual, experiencing changing gender and sexual characteristics. This trait shapes the entire society and culture of Gethen, making Left Hand of Darkness one of the first novels to use anthropology and sociology, rather than technological innovation, as the basis for a speculative world.
The Complete Orsinia: The Library of America is recognized across the country as the publisher of America's most classic literature; the image of an LOA book jacket is synonymous with great American works. It’s rare for them to publish a living author's works, but this year they’re publishing Le Guin, starting with The Complete Orsinia, which includes thirteen short stories and a novel set in a fictional Eastern European country. It's not science fiction or fantasy, but this mix of literary and historical fiction is just as rich and exciting as her more famous works; after all, Le Guin herself asked that it be honored by the Library of America, forever cementing her legacy as a fiction writer, not just a genre writer.
The Unreal and the Real: If short stories pique your interest, look no further than this collection of thirty-eight short stories, in which Le Guin herself gathers the best tales, both fantastic and realistic, from her oeuvre in one place. Included here is the often anthologized "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," a story about a utopian society whose happiness depends on a troubling secret.
Lavinia: Le Guin's most recent novel is a retelling of the story of Lavinia, a minor character in Virgil's Aeneid, and her experiences in the chaos of ancient Italy before the founding of Rome. Fated to marry Aeneas and provoke war between her countrymen and the Trojans, Lavinia never had a chance to speak in Virgil's epic poem, but in this evocative reimagining of Roman myth, Le Guin gives this character agency and a voice.
Finding My Elegy: Le Guin is best known for her fiction, but she's been publishing poetry for over fifty years, and this volume of selected early and new poems is a must-read. The imagistic style that makes Le Guin so regarded amongst science fiction fans, coupled with some of her most personal subject matter, makes this a great place to start with Le Guin if you're a poetry nut.
Got any other Le Guin recommendations? Shout them out in the comments, along with a "Happy Birthday Ursula!"