Don't know where to start? The essential novels of Ursula K Le Guin

From the fantasy of Earthsea to ambisexual planets, these masterpieces offer brilliant introductions to a dazzling writer who broke entirely new ground

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K Le Guin book jacket

“From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea,” begins Ursula K Le Guin, in her ringingly clear register.

One of her earliest works, this novel is set in the world of Earthsea, an archipelago of islands, and follows the coming of age of the young wizard, Ged, from the island of Gont. Ged is whisked away by a great mage, Ogion, and studies at a school for wizardry. (Sounds familiar? Le Guin told the Guardian that JK Rowling “could have been more generous” in acknowledging the 1968 novel.) While there, his pride tempts him into the summoning of a “shadow”, a beast that he will try to escape for the rest of the novel, and which thing of darkness he will only overcome by acknowledging as his own.

There are more Earthsea novels and more adventures, including The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu, all filled with Le Guin’s particular form of magic, which involves giving things their true names. And with water, and boats, and dragons, “thin-winged and spiny-backed”. Ostensibly stories for children, they are deeper and wiser than many adult novels.

The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Set in the Hainish universe, to which Le Guin would return in other novels, The Left Hand of Darkness tells of Genly Ai, an emissary to the planet of Winter, or Gethen, who is inviting its people to join the Ekumen, a coalition of planets. The Gethenians are “ambisexual” – mostly androgynous, when they enter the state of “kemmer” they can become either male or female in order to reproduce. Le Guin refers to every Gethenian as “he” – leading to sentences like: “The king was pregnant.”

Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, it both forces a re-examination of gender in the reader and, later, becomes a helter-skelter adventure, as Genly is imprisoned and his Gethenian friend, Estraven, sets out to rescue him. For the critic Harold Bloom, the book meant “that Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time”.

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven book jacket

“I have had dreams … that affected the … non-dream world. The real world.” So says George Orr, a man whose dreams have the ability to change reality. His psychiatrist William Haber harnesses this power, using it in an unfortunately Monkey’s Paw-ish way: when George dreams of peace, aliens arrive on the moon to unite the world against them. Dreaming of an end to racism means everyone’s skin turns grey and the woman George loves, a black lawyer who is trying to save him from Haber’s clutches, disappears. “Never to have known a woman with brown skin, brown skin and wiry black hair cut very short so that the elegant line of the skull showed like the curve of a bronze vase – no, that was wrong. That was intolerable. That every soul on earth should have a body the colour of a battleship: no!”

The Dispossessed

Ursula le Guin book jacket

Le Guin called this novel an “anarchist utopia”, a reaction to the Vietnam war. Originally “a very bad short story” according to Le Guin, there was a book in it, and I knew it, but the book had to wait for me to learn what I was writing about and how to write about it. I needed to understand my own passionate opposition to the war that we were, endlessly it seemed, waging in Vietnam, and endlessly protesting at home,” she writes in an introduction.

The action alternates between the twin worlds of Urras and Anarres. A century before, anarchist revolutionaries from Urras set up a new society in Anarres, and attempted to live without property. The two societies have developed with little contact ever since. But the physicist Shevek, who is working on a method of interstellar communication called the Principle of Simultaneity, is becoming disillusioned with the anarchist philosophy of Anarres and travels to Urras to find more freedom.

According to a profile of Le Guin by the novelist Hari Kunzru, the book is still circulated in activist communities, with young anarchists approaching the author for advice. But Le Guin told Kunzru that the encounters made her “embarrassed and a bit guilty” because, since writing the book, she had concluded that the only way for an anarchist society to be fully implemented was “to be completely isolated from everybody else. Then it will probably all the same destroy itself from inside, because we are perverse creatures. But it was a lovely thing to follow through in a novel, as an intellectual framework for a book. Which is really what anarchism was to me, a way of thinking, a way of imagining, but not a belief.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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