The Library of America Canonizes Ursula K. Le Guin’s Science Fiction in The Hainish Novels & Stories

Cover detail of early edition of The Dispossessed, art by Anthony Roberts

I have an ever-growing collection of horrific paperback editions of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. She’s my favorite writer, so that explains some of the impulse; I dig the artifacts of decades of publication history. Garish art, yellowing pages, failing spines threatening to turn the book into an unfixable mess of out-of-order pages: these are the things I treasure about my haphazard collection. And yet, I’m also well pleased the Library of America has now issued a two-volume set, The Hainish Novels & Stories, collecting tales set in a loose intergalactic confederation called Ekumen; the Hainish Cycle includes some of Le Guin’s most famous and heralded works. It turns out my instinct for completism includes gorgeous editions of my favorite author’s books.

This is a landmark release in another way: last year, at about this time, the Library of America issued its first definitive edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writings, The Complete Orsinia, assembling short stories, poetry, and a single novel concerning the history of the fictional central European country of Orsinia. While it’s a collection I wouldn’t hesitate to call essential, it seemed to some a curious move; Le Guin’s career is certainly defined by her science fiction and fantasy. As someone who has read damn near all of her published fiction—there’s a single novel, which I shall not name, that has defeated me twice—I get why she led with her less famous, more literary work. It wasn’t a slag on genre, but an acknowledgement that tight adherence to genre shouldn’t dictate the way we judge a writer, particularly one whose work encompasses such a broad fictional landscape.

But it cannot be denied: Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy is much more well known. The Library of America, with its distinctive black dustjackets and red-white-and-blue ribbon, seeks to “showcase the vitality and variety of America’s literary legacy.” Le Guin’s decades-long career certainly falls under that rubric, and her genre work is an important part of it. It’s so very cool we now have definitive editions of two of Le Guin’s most coherent literary settings. The light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the right hand of light.

The two volumes of The Hainish Novels & Stories collect seven or eight novels, depending on how you count a suite of interconnected short stories, plus unconnected short stories, introductions, timelines, and a few essays. As she notes in an introduction to this edition, Le Guin wrote these novels and stories during the ’60s and ’70s, took an unintended break in the ’80s, then came back to the Ekumen changed in the ’90s and beyond. Werel, the titular Planet of Exile (which has a decade-long summer and winter shift, cough cough, George Martin), published 1968, is not the same Werel we meet in Four Ways to Forgiveness, published in 2004, a world half a generation after a form of chattel slavery was broken.

These volumes also collect some of Le Guin’s very earliest published writings: Rocannon’s World (a novel expanded from the short story “Semley’s Necklace”) and her next two published novels, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions., are all set in the Hainish universe. These first novels are rough, the way any first novels are rough. Within a trim 200-odd pages, Rocannon’s World manages to introduce us to five alien races and at least three human societies; it’s a mess of a thing, in a way. The alien Shing, featured in the next two books, are stock adversaries: bad because they are bad. But even here, Le Guin is still Le Guin; there are moments in these early works that send the same frisson down my back as her later, more accomplished writing. (And some that I adore, but don’t think I’d find in more considered novels, like the cat-like winged mounts in Rocannon’s World, both goofy and intensely satisfying, the kind of thing best left to children’s literature like Catwings.)

Don’t take my word for it; take Le Guin’s. This set also includes reams of her late-career considerations of her earlier writing, those written much later imbued with a kind of rueful introspection. She’s the one who pointed out to me the oddities of those stumbling first novels. Unblinkingly, Le Guin considers her successes and failures, reprints from that weird mid-career period when she was just a working science fiction writer, before she had a body of work and a legacy. This is one of the reasons this Library of America edition is so valuable: I’ve encountered these introductions before, somewhere in my dogeared collection of falling-apart books, but here they are, appendixed and reproduced and insightful as ever.

These are not all early period oddments, possibly only interesting to fringe completists (oh, hello!). We’re also treated to major books:  The Left Hand of Darkness, which won Le Guin her first Hugo and Nebula awards for novel writing, is collected in the first volume. Investigating gender on the frozen world of Gethen, whose population only acquires binary sexual characteristics during a specific period of their life cycle, it is a major work of feminist science fiction, and science fiction in general. Genly Ai is sent to Gethen as an envoy of the Ekumen—the Hainish conclave of worlds—and the interplay between his maleness and the sexual fluidity of the Gethenians makes for a heady mix. The Dispossessed, which likewise won both of SFF’s major awards, recounts the invention of the ansible, a term Le Guin coined, back in her first novel, for a device capable of faster-than-light communication, a trick that’s as much about future worldbuilding as smoothing over bumps in an interstellar narrative. It takes place on the planet and moon pair of Anarres and Urras, celestial bodies further divided by their governments, capitalist and communist, and it still has much to say about the different ways we all choose to live beside one another, or don’t.

I love The Complete Orsinia, which informs me of the careful way Le Guin situates herself in both literary and larger history; it’s an excellent entrance point into her work. But The Hainish Novels & Stories hits closer to the beating heart of Le Guin’s oeuvre. They have a lot in common, these worlds, though one inhabits a Central European country over decades, and the other a League of Worlds over eons. While the Orsinian tales structure themselves as a form of history, albeit one of an imaginary country, there’s a way in which each story is read against the other. Le Guin never much bothered with version control in her Hainish cycle; she never sacrificed the story at hand to the false exactitude of intertextual continuity. Despite their interstellar setting, these are personal stories, folkloric.

If you want this universe to make complete sense according to a structured timeline, you’re going to be disappointed. These are all stories of a not-precisely-central world, Hain, that primarily communicates with its vast, far-flung non-empire through voices in the darkness. Sometimes it sends emissaries out into the void to meet face-to-face with those they hear, but these ambassadors are wobbling, personal creatures like the rest of us, just trying to make their way in the world, in the worlds. Working though the the leap-frogging galactic history of The Hainish Novels & Stories illuminates another kind of history: one of a writer creating and returning to an invented past and future, again and again; a history as long as imagination, and as deep as craft.

The Hainish Novels & Stories are available now in two volumes, or collected as a box set.

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