For the past thirty-five years, the nonprofit organization Library of America has been systematically preserving America's cultural heritage by publishing some of the nation's greatest non-fiction and literature in new, authoritative, small hardback editions. Most recently, the results of that noble task are on display with the release of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, a two-volume collection edited by Brian Attebery containing all of the author's novels, short stories and miscellaneous material related to her long-running imaginary future history. The volumes are available separately or in a handsome boxed set. They are fantastic reads suited for everyone; hardcore, casual and even uninitiated readers of science fiction will find something in Le Guin's accessible explorations.
What makes these stories so accessible? Simply put: it's because Le Guin writes about the human condition. Rather than dabble in rigorous hard science, Le Guin's brand of science fiction leans towards the soft sciences like sociology and anthropology. The emphasis is not on spaceships and space travel, it's on human civilization and society. To be sure, there are those more obvious science fiction elements in her stories—things like faster-than-light travel and time dilation—but they are expertly delivered in an understated way so as not to steal focus away from the realistic characters that populate her stories.
Le Guin's so-called Hainish Cycle of stories are based on the premise that habitable worlds are populated by the descendants of colonists originating from the planet Hain. It's worth noting that Le Guin, as she states in the fascinating introduction in Volume 1 of The Hainish Novels & Stories, flinches when these interconnected stories are referred to as The Hainish Cycle. That name, she says, implies a consistent, well thought-out future history, meticulously crafted before its execution. She is the first to admit that the universe has inconsistencies. (For example, the earlier stories conveniently contained humans who acquired telepathy while the characters of later novels lacked any such ability.) However, regardless of such inconsistencies, the Hainish stories portray a remarkably well-imagined future that provide a fertile backdrop for engrossing stories.
The first story in the Hainish Cycle is Le Guin's first published novel: Rocannon's World (1966). In it, an ethnologist named Gaverel Rocannon goes on an anthropological mission to the second planet in the Fomalhaut star system. Unfortunately, Rocannon's ship and the rest of his crew is destroyed when they are shot down by an enemy of The League of Worlds (the governing body of mankind). Rocannon is marooned on this technologically primitive world, which has not progressed past the Bronze age. It is, however, populated by different races of creatures akin to humans, elves, and trolls, some of which have the telepathic gift of "mindspeech". Rocannon's mission thus reads like a quest fantasy to find a way to notify the League of the presence of an enemy base on the planet.
Planet of Exile (1966) is a novel set on the planet Werel, which takes sixty Earth years to revolve around its sun. Its inhabitants include a dwindling faction of humans called the Farborn who are wise in the ways of space travel, but effectively abandoned by The League of Worlds. Inhabitants also include an indigenous tribe of humans called the Tevarans who have little interaction with the Farborn – that is, until a Tevaran girl named Rolery meets Jakob Agat Alterra, the de facto leader of the Farborn. Their relationship is forbidden by longstanding cultural norms and the League's non-interference rule of "Cultural Embargo." It impedes the efforts to unite both groups against the Gaal, a common enemy seeking to evade the forthcoming winter that will last fifteen years thanks to the planet's orbit. There's a lot of drama that plays out in this setting (Hollywood thought so too – it was recently optioned for a film), and because of the relatively low level of technology also reads like a science-fantasy story.
The novel City of Illusions (1967) takes place on a sparsely-populated and alien-occupied Earth twelve centuries after the Shing, an enemy of The League of Worlds, have apparently defeated the League. The Shing do not believe in killing, but they are perfectly happy to keep humans enslaved and in line through mind control. Into this world comes Falk, a yellow-eyed human with amnesia who may just hold the key to humanity's freedom. Falk is taken in by a small community, taught the ways of this world, and eventually embarks on a journey to the Shing to find out the truth about humanity's past.
Next up in Volume 1 is not only a multi-award-winning Hainish novel, it's widely considered to be a science fiction masterpiece. The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969, takes place on the wintery world of Gethen (also known as Winter), most notable for its inhabitants. The people of Gethen are androgynous; specifically, they are ambisexuals having the ability to become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle. Genly Ai is an Earth-born envoy tasked with facilitating Gethen's inclusion in the ever-growing intergalactic civilization called the Ekumen (formerly the League of Worlds). The Left Hand of Darkness is notable for its lyrical writing, unique world building and its thoughtful exploration of gender issues.
The Dispossessed (first published in 1974 as The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia) is also a winner of multiple awards. It's a philosophical examination of two inhabited worlds, one the moon of the other, with two drastically different political systems. One is the anarchist Utopian world of Anarres, the other is capitalist-like world of Urras. The appeal of the books is in the comparison of the vastly different nearby worlds, seen through the eyes of the fish-out-of-water protagonist Shevek, a brilliant physicist who wants to reunite his home world Anarres with its sister planet Urras.
The rest of Volume 1 contains even more treats:
- Four Hainish short stories including "Winter's King" and "Coming of Age in Karhide"– both set on Gethen, the same location as the novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Another story called "The Day Before the Revolution" is available to read for free on Library of America's website.
- The original version of "Winter's King" (it was originally written before The Left Hand of Darkness)
- Previously-written introductions from the above novels.
- Color end-papers featuring the author's hand-drawn map of Gethen.
- Illuminating essays.
At the risk of making it sound like any less of a treat – I promise, it's not! – an abbreviated rundown of what can be found in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume 2 includes:
- Another fascinating introduction.
- The 1972 novella The Word for World is Forest, in which a military logging colony from Earth faces a revolt from the peaceful indigenous people driven to violence. This story was partly inspired by the events of Vietnam, or more specifically, America's involvement in it. (The author's original introduction is included in a later appendix.)
- 7 more Hainish short stories, including "The Shobies' Story," which recounts the Hain's first use of fast-than-light-travel, and "The Matter of Seggri" set on a planet that enforces extreme gender segregation.
- The interconnected story suite: "Five Ways to Forgiveness" – five stories that detail the history of the planet Werel (seen in the novel Planet of Exile) and its sister planet Yeowe. This is an extension of the previously published Four Ways to Forgiveness.
- The Telling, a novel in which an Ekumen observer named Sutty is assigned to go to the planet Aka to learn why the world has almost entirely forgotten its history. They've lost their vital oral traditions and spiritual beliefs in the span of a single generation.
- The original introduction to The Word for World is Forest.
- Story notes.
- A chronology of the author's life and work
- Color endpapers featuring a planetary chart of the Hainish worlds.
- The thoughtful essay On Not Reading Science Fiction – a fascinating piece I am still dissecting.
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of literature's best-kept secrets, but maybe not for much longer. In her decades-long career, she's accumulated numerous awards and accolades, including being named a Science Fiction Grand Master. This isn't the first time Library of America has seen fit to honor this talented writer; they also offer The Complete Orsinia, a collection of related stories set in the fictional central European nation of Orsinia. I do hope that Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories leads to more readers discovering her fascinating work.
Images courtesy of Library of America.