Recently, I was telling a friend that there’s a list of things I’ll probably never write about because I love them in a way that does not abide critical distance, which doesn’t really make for interesting writing. Somewhere near the top of that list is the work of American science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin, who died in 2018, leaving behind over 20 novels, seven essay collections, a dozen books of poetry, and more than 100 short stories. Among them are some of my favorite books ever written, and ones I will read again and again until I can read no longer.
It’s difficult to think clearly about someone who shaped the very way you think, as her work — Earthsea first, most, always — has done for me. But even more recently I was told I need to contribute a Gawker gift guide, and the phrase “Ursula Le Guin Le Gift Guide” entered my brain like a child on Christmas morning, demanding attention, so here we are. If you haven’t read any Le Guin yourself I can’t recommend it highly enough, even if you don’t think you like genre fiction.
She is a master storyteller, both subtle and powerful, wily and wise. She writes warm books about cold planets, abundant novels set on desiccated moons, grown-up stories for children. There are books I read for the first time and thought, “I have known this story my whole life,” then read for the third or fifth time and discover something I didn’t know was there. And if you’ve been stuck on what to buy for someone you love, here is a list of thoughtful gifts that say “I saw this article on Twitter.”
Gift for a Friend Who Posts About “Praxis”: The Dispossessed (1974)
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, is not my favorite Le Guin novel (that would be The Tombs of Atuan), but it is probably her best one. The story follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Annares, an almost uninhabitable arid moon that orbits lush, brutally unequal Urras. Annares is home to an anarchist community: the descendents of revolutionaries who fled Urras almost two centuries prior in order to build their ideal society. Annarestis believe that human flourishing is only possible free from all coercion, through cooperation and a radical commitment to sharing (resources, yes, also children and sexual partners). “To make a thief, make an owner,” goes one aphorism attributed to their ancient philosopher/intellectual guiding light, Odo. Annares has no laws, no private ownership, no police, no marriage, no possessive pronouns.
But the desert moon of Annares is a hard place where nothing much grows, not even ideas. Generations on and the revolution has stalled out; calcified into something they do not call hierarchy but which often functions as precisely that. Shevek’s remarkable scientific breakthroughs are ignored or viewed with outright suspicion (his colleagues accuse him of “egoism”), and he slowly decides that in order to realize his potential he must travel to Urras, something no other Annaresti has done. Once there, it becomes clear that the nations of Urras wish to use his communication technology not to open the universe but to dominate it, and that he has escaped into a gilded prison.
The Dispossessed is foremost a novel of ideas: When does an obligation to the self supersede an obligation to others? How can any society reconcile the gifts of individuality with the demands of communality? What does it mean to be free? What might best live in the space between what we can dream of and what we can achieve?
None of this is particularly unusual for a science fiction novel with a philosophical bent. Plenty of authors ask big questions about how we should live here, now by imagining how someone might live elsewhere, some other time. Where Le Guin does stand alone is in her commitment to one idea, the only one that really matters if you are writing a science fiction novel with a philosophical bent: This is what things are like in this world. Annares is rendered so thoroughly, with such absolute conviction, that it becomes more than a mere thought experiment. It is imperfect, it is inspiring, it is difficult and joyful, it actually mainly works. This is what things could be like in this world.
Gift for a Friend Who Really Only Reads Sci-fi by Men (Why Are You Friends With This Person?): The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
The Lathe of Heaven is the Le Guin book most likely to be described as “like Philip K. Dick.” Of course this is a fine thing to be like, particularly for a science fiction writer working in the ’70s, but I can’t help feeling this is somewhat shabby behavior toward poor Ursula, whose total output is superior. I will grant it is an effective way to get across that The Lathe of Heaven is a heady, often surreal, paranoid thriller set in a futuristic Portland, Oregon.
It follows George Orr, a quiet and unassuming man who nonetheless has the ability to shape reality with his dreams. This is, as you can imagine, a terrible burden for George, who in addition to possessing world-warping powers is the only one who knows it is happening. He turns to drugs, which leads him into the care of psychiatrist William Haber. Haber realizes what George can do, and sets about trying to surreptitiously control George’s dreams in order to improve the world. This goes about as well as you would expect: Haber wants to cure overpopulation and George dreams of a devastating plague, Haber endeavors to rid the world of racism and George’s dream turns everyone the same shade of gray.
In truth, The Lathe of Heaven is the only Le Guin I’ve never reread. Not because I don’t like it, I do, it just feels very classically sci-fi in a way that I can admire but fall just shy of being able to truly love. Still, it is very much worth reading — among the darker of her novels, both uncertain and ambitious, concerned with the very nature of reality. Also makes a great gift for someone who thinks that therapy can solve everything.
Gift for a Friend Who Can Sort of See What the Trads Are Talking About: Lavinia (2008)
Lavinia is Le Guin’s final novel, and is often overlooked when people discuss her work. That’s a shame. In it, Le Guin takes up as her titular protagonist a minor character from Virgil’s The Aeneid and from such scant offerings— daughter of King Latinus, promised to Trojan hero Aeneas, never speaks — creates someone fully realized and remarkable.
And while feminist retellings of famous stories, especially those that give voice to the women on the margins of a text, are a bit old hat by now — probably were by 2008, if we’re being honest; Margaret Atwood had her turn in 2005 with The Penelopiad — Le Guin takes a unique approach. More often than not, overlooked women of the fictional past are rendered as somehow trapped; unable to escape the constraints of domesticity or stuck at home while men have adventures.
But Lavinia loves her land and its people, its livestock and forests, its daily rituals and local gods. Rather than marry a king who would take her away, she embraces her fate in the form of Aeneas, a man she chooses despite knowing he will soon die. Many of Le Guin’s best stories are about journeys: across an ocean, from isolation to connection, the process of becoming an adult. Her characters flee, escape, and are pursued. With Lavinia, she shows us a different sort of journey to liberation: a woman who wants more than anything not the freedom to leave, but the freedom to stay. .
Gift for a Friend You Are Mildly to Moderately In Love With: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
The Left Hand of Darkness is typically spoken of as Le Guin’s book about gender, and it is definitely about that, in some obvious ways. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is a diplomat on a mission to fold the isolated, frigid planet of Gethen, also known as Winter, into the confederation of planets known as the Ekumen. Gethenians differ from other humanoid members of the Ekumen in one major regard: they are neither male nor female, except once per month when they may become either for the purposes of procreation.
What sort of culture might spring from a people with no sexual difference is an abiding concern of the novel, and is what most people talk about when they talk about it as a feminist classic. But to me, The Left Hand of Darkness has always been Le Guin’s best book about friendship. In particular, the kind of slippery adult friendship that always thrums with the potential of becoming something else, the kind that Genly Ai finds with Estraven. Initially marked by wariness and misunderstandings — words meant one way and received another — the novel that begins with courts and nations and universe-spanning coalitions reaches its emotional crescendo with the utterly unique little world that exists between two friends, populated by them alone. Genly Ai and Estraven come to know each other, and to understand each other, and to love each other. They stop short of physical consummation, although both recognize it as a possibility:
For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that. I do not know if we were right.
It is the descriptive assuredness here, knowing that this thing between them is called love and should not be called anything else, followed by the almost plaintive uncertainty that I find so moving. “I do not know if we were right.”
I have so often known what to name something without knowing what to do about it.
Gift for Anyone You Care About Even a Little Bit, Particularly a Child but Also an Adult: Earthsea Cycle
I have put it off long enough — we have now reached the point where I must talk seriously of wizards. Too often, when adults want to explain why they still read books for children they resort to whiny protestations about empathy and the power of stories and how we must hold firm to the imaginative capacity of childhood. Or worse, they get defensive and pretend like every work of literary fiction is about a horny professor who fucks his students. I won’t do that. Rather, I will say that on the matter of wizards, you either find them desperately silly or you can rattle off the ones you love best, in order. The wizard I love best is Ged.
He is not yet a wizard when we first meet him in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), just a boy with some powers. To become one, Ged must learn “Old Speech,” which is the language of the making of the world and how one may gain power over something: by knowing its true name. This is a flattering writerly invention — the idea that mastery of the world is yoked to descriptive prowess, to knowing the right words for things. But it is also to make trust (telling someone your true name) and knowledge seeking (learning the true name of another) the very heart of magic.
Unlike some other well-known wizards, Ged’s wisdom is not airy and mystical but hard won, disfiguring. It came at a great cost because everything does. This is something Le Guin will make plain again and again over the course of the following four Earthsea books. If A Wizard of Earthsea is about taking responsibility for what we do to the world, its follow-up, the astonishing The Tombs of Atuan (1970) is about the possibility of escaping what the world does to us. Can it be done? Sort of. Can you gain anything (knowledge, freedom) without losing something else (innocence, a sense of your place in the order of things)? No.
Le Guin’s Earthsea is filled with a wonder and a terror beyond reckoning. There is an ocean so vast one could be born and live and die on its waves, never touching solid ground; underground places so dark one must learn a new way to see; small islands so isolated one could mistake it for the whole of the world. To become a wizard is to love all of it for what it is.
That is one lesson of Earthsea: that there is great power in seeing things as they are. Another: every choice you make has a consequence, for yourself or others. Everything you do is done in an endless web of connection that binds us all. “Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil,” teaches the Master Summoner, “and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in the West, unless you know what you are about.”
It can be difficult to know what you are about. Ursula Le Guin always did.