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Ursulan Utopias: The 5 Best Novels Of Ursula Le Guin

* Described as author whose work, more than Tolkien’s even, made fantasy into serious lit
* Le Guin’s prolific career redefined what science fiction could do
* Revisit old faves or delve into these richly-imagined words for the first time

Few writers have as thoroughly and single-handedly come to define a genre as the late Ursula K. Le Guin, who we lost just this year.

Le Guin’s career spanned several decades and helped put science fiction on the literary map, in the process creating worlds as nuanced and thoughtful as they are thrilling. A pioneering feminist as well as a literary star, Le Guin showed us how science fiction worlds can play a vital role in expanding our understanding of possibilities for equality and justice on this earth as well.

The child of academic anthropologists, Le Guin was constantly exploring questions of how and why societies functioned as they did, and in her works she presents “thought experiments” that lead us down the path of considering why things are the way they are — while questioning whether or not there is another way.

Dealing with themes of family and power, identity and freedom, sexuality and gender fluidity, Le Guin’s works represent a lifelong engagement with the possibility of social change. Whether you’re a long-time reader looking to refresh your memory of these epic science fiction and fantasy universes, or a newcomer to the world of Ursula K. Le Guin, here are five of the best of her novels to read right now.

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1. The Dispossessed

“The Dispossessed,” first published in 1974, is an excellent introduction to Le Guin’s work. It forms the first chronological part of the long-running epic “

,” a series of books taking place on the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti. Le Guin weaves the stories of her characters in these alien worlds with breathtaking delicacy and detail. Rather than forming direct social commentary, the political explorations within “The Dispossessed” serve to explore the possibilities of human society.


2. A Wizard of Earthsea

Le Guin’s 1968 epic fantasy breakout hit, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” seems to have almost effortlessly crossed over a conventional boundary between “children’s literature” and “serious” adult fiction. Today, of course, there is almost no evidence of such a defined boundary, but Le Guin’s magnificent world building and deeply thoughtful coming-of-age narrative has become a benchmark for literary, YA and children’s fiction alike.

It forms the first volume of the 6-part “Earthsea Cycle.” Noted for its lyricism, its Taoist influence and its subversion of many traditional “epic” tropes, it also features one of fiction’s first schools of wizardry, and is of course credited as an influence on JK Rowling and the Harry Potter mythos.


3. The Left Hand of Darkness

Part of the Hainish Cycle, this 1969 novel was introduced as a “thought experiment,” and maybe more than any other single book shows us Le Guin’s transcendence of the typical “rationalist and simplistic” science fiction novel. It depicts a star-spanning alliance of humanoid worlds, and features an almost-picaresque story full of lyrical twists and turns. As a bonus, fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation will find that many episodes are more or less lifted from elements of this novel.


4. Steering the Craft

“Steering the Craft” is one of the most helpful books to have on hand for any writer or storyteller. In it, Le Guin brings together examples of storytelling forms and techniques from across world literature and interposes her own brilliant, witty commentary. No stranger to academia or anthropology (her parents were anthropologists) Le Guin uses the impressive breadth of her knowledge to create a truly luminary guidebook for those interested in… the craft of writing. If you’re working on a screenplay and in search of a star to navigate by, you could do far worse than to start here.


5. The Unreal and the Real

While she is mainly famous for her novels and epic cycles, Ursula Le Guin was also a brilliant short fiction writer. This volume collects some of her best-loved short fiction. As the title implies, the stories within share many of the world building and science fiction themes of Le Guin’s longer works. Some even formed the kernels or earlier drafts of those works. “The Unreal and the Real” is also a great intro for new readers.

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