Where to Start: The ‘Legendary’ Books of Ursula K. Le Guin

The late science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin was often referred to as a “living legend” – the Library of Congress officially designated her as such in 2000. But the writer chafed against the descriptor. As she told an interviewer in a profile, “I’m right here. I have gravity. A body and all that.”

The response characterizes much of what is remarkable about Le Guin’s writing. There is the exacting attention to language, the insistence on examining cliché to see where it breaks down. There is the impatience with conventional pieties and sanctimony. And there is the engagement with the literal definition of legend, the continued interest with how fantasy and myth intersect with the corporeal, mortal reality of being alive.

While she was an avatar for science fiction writers, her work crossed boundaries and often defied genre. Her concerns were the fate of the species (which she often allegorized with non-human civilizations facing recognizable problems in distant galaxies); the environment; gender roles; and our responsibilities to ourselves, and each other, in our own fragile universe. Whether exploring these ideas in historical fiction that borrows from real-life revolutions, speculative tales that challenge our assumptions about what it means to be a moral person, or avant garde experiments that confront the demands of narrative storytelling, Le Guin wrote with intellect and empathy.

The Complete Orsinia, which collects Le Guin’s numerous stories and novels set in the imaginary European country Orsinia, includes a hand-drawn map of Orsinia by Le Guin herself, poems, and songs in her invented Orsinian language. It runs to 700 pages, but it is by no means a comprehensive overview of the writer’s work.

Le Guin’s ‘legendary’ career will never be forgotten. For a partial sampling of her work, check out the following books.

  • The cover of the book Worlds of Exile and Illusion

    Worlds of Exile and Illusion

    This collection contains Le Guin’s first three novels: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusion. Set in the Hainish universe, which Le Guin returns to in later works, these books explore themes of power, justice, freedom, and personal responsibility towards society at large. Told from the distant future on an imaginary planet, they concern matters of love and survival as familiar to readers today as they were when the novels were first published in the 1960s.

  • The cover of the book The Left Hand of Darkness

    The Left Hand of Darkness

    Set in the mythical land of Winter, whose inhabitants shift gender the way humans change shoes, this Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel revealed the depths of Le Guin’s engagement with questions of philosophy and the very meaning of what it is to be human. This edition has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, just one of the science fiction writers deeply influenced by Le Guin’s work.

  • The cover of the book The Wave in the Mind

    The Wave in the Mind

    Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination

    In addition to a nearly non-stop forty-plus year career of writing novels, novellas, stories, and poems, Le Guin has found the time to pursue nonfiction – essays and criticism, which she continues to write today. This collection covers topics ranging from women’s shoes to Mark Twain. Really, though, her concern is always writing – the crafting of prose, the importance of story, and the vital gift of imagination.

  • The cover of the book The Unreal and the Real

    The Unreal and the Real

    At the beginning of her career, Le Guin had a hard time getting published, until she sent one of her stories to a science fiction magazine. Decades later, more literary types discovered the power of her words, and she began publishing in the New Yorker, among other highbrow magazines. The stories collected here attest to the writer’s crossover appeal, and show her evolution from the earliest days of her career up to the works from later life.