Wednesday Geek Woman: Ursula K. Le Guin

2010 November 10

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are currently open.

A version of this post appeared a few weeks ago at Hoyden About Town.

A little capsule summary for people who haven’t read her work: Ursula K. Le Guin is a novelist, poet and essayist. She is best known for science fiction and fantasy, particularly the six Earthsea books (five novels and a collection of stories) set in an archepeligo world with advanced magic and pre-industrial tech; and various books set in her Hainish universe, which is a future series in which Earth, among other planets among relatively nearby stars, turn out to have all have hominid species on them, established some millions of years ago by a still existing ancestral species the Hainish, in a series of biological/sociological experiments. This has allowed her to write, for example, The Left Hand of Darkness, Winter’s King and Coming of Age in Karhide, set in a world of primates with a sort of oestrous cycle in which their bodies can become either male or female, and who have otherwise no gender or sexuality; and The Matter of Seggri, about a world on which there are about sixteen women born for every man, and men are kept apart with their role in society being purely exhibition of strength, sex, and providing sperm.

Le Guin is something of a goto name for someone who wants to make sure their list of Great Science Fiction includes something, anything, by a woman: she’s white, she has by now become a big name and is award-winning and Taken Seriously (see Guest Post by Alisa Krasnostein: The Invisibility of Women in Science Fiction at Hoyden). I… do think she’s worth reading anyway! But don’t stop there, I doubt she’d want you to.

I’ve enjoyed Le Guin’s writing for years, but here is her crowning Hoyden moment for me, in a 2001 interview by Nick Gevers, a science fiction editor and critic:

[Gevers asks] Who, for you, are the finest SF authors now writing — both your fellow feminist writers and more generally?

[Le Guin answers] First I am to list fellow feminists and then… non-fellow anti-feminists? Come on, Nick, let’s get out of the pigeonholes. If feminism is the idea that differences between the genders, beyond the strictly physiological, are an interesting subject of study, but have not been determined, and so are not a sound basis for society to use in prescribing or proscribing any proclivity or activity — which is what I think it is — then I probably don’t read any non-feminist SF writers, these days. Do you?

Here’s a few selected pieces of Le Guin’s writing:

  • Two chapters from The Left Hand of Darkness
  • A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books. (on a TV adaption of A Wizard of Earthsea)

Le Guin has a fairly large website with links to most of her recent online writing.

If I had to recommend a single piece of writing of hers, I would say that its the short story The Day Before the Revolution (probably easiest to find in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters), which probably benefits a lot if you read The Dispossessed for context first (The Dispossessed is a fine novel, so not just for context). The Day Before the Revolution was published when Le Guin was 45 years old. She wasn’t old at the time, and I am not old yet, but it is the closest I come to understanding how it might be.

Wikipedia: Ursula K. Le Guin

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This post was written by mary.

Mary is a Free Software contributor, computational linguistics research student and programmer at large. She can also be found at and Hoyden About Town.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Kim permalink
    November 10, 2010

    I absolutely LOVE Ursula Le Guin! Her novels are wonderful, but for me what I love even more are her essays and speeches. I have a collection of hers called “Dancing on the Edge of the World” and its just wonderful. She is such an insightful woman. This is the link to my own personal ‘Ode to Ursula Le Guin’ :

  2. Lilivati permalink
    November 10, 2010

    I’m so glad you mentioned “The Day Before the Revolution”. Generally when I hear brief comments on Le Guin’s short fiction all that gets mentioned is “Coming of Age in Karhide”, which while a good story, rather pales in comparison, in my opinion as a voracious reader of short sci-fi.

    I absolutely love her work.

    • Mary permalink
      November 10, 2010

      I like Coming of Age but I think there’s a number of better stories even in Birthday of the World let alone in other collections.

  3. Carla Schroder permalink
    November 10, 2010

    Oo me me! “The Day Before the Revolution” is an awesome story, and even more awesome is “The ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. It’s a simple tale about a moral choice. It will never leave you. It also is in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.

    • Mary permalink
      November 10, 2010

      Omelas was accidentally spoiled for me a bit by taking a moral philosophy class from a man who loved loved loved it (which is fine) but was very clearly trying to signal the right choice to us which wasn’t so great in the context of the class.

      But only a bit. It’s a great story.

      • Shauna permalink
        November 11, 2010

        I agree it’s a great story, although at the time I read it I was studying a similar moral dilemma somewhat intensively, so I was also spoiled too.

        I can’t tell from your sentence – was the professor of your class trying really hard to signal the right choice to you, or are you arguing that the story was?

        • Mary permalink
          November 11, 2010

          The teacher. I think Le Guin is fairly clear on the choice she thinks you should make too but I didn’t mind that: she wasn’t in the classroom squashing dissent.

  4. Stephanie permalink
    November 12, 2010

    Okay, please explain to me what I’m missing in the Earthsea series. I read The Wizard of Earthsea on the recommendation of a friend who when he thinks of feminist, he thinks of me and vice/versa so he said I would LOVE them.

    Only, I didn’t. If we were to submit the book to the Bechdel Test it would fail miserably. Furthermore all of the women characters are the basic stereotypes of evil witch or virginal damsel.

    Does it just get exponentially better as the series goes on or am I missing something?

    • Mary permalink
      November 12, 2010

      The first three are in fact notoriously male-centric. Decades later Le Guin, with a much more feminist eye, returned to the universe and wrote a fourth novel Tehanu which was a woman’s perspective on the whole thing (although the second novel is also from the point-of-view of a woman, but it’s still About Men). There’s also a fairly large change in tone. The fifth and sixth books (which are a collection of stories and a novel respectively) are more in the tradition of the fourth, although not as exclusively focussed on women’s point-of-view.

      With regard to whether to continue, I would suggest that you do so only if you want to follow the story of Ged, because otherwise you will probably find the whole thing pretty annoying. An alternative might be reading the second and then the fourth, fifth and sixth books.

      • Dorothea Salo permalink
        November 12, 2010

        Yes, it’s the return to Earthsea that makes the series sing. I have hella respect for LeGuin for deconstructing her OWN SERIES and writing new books to try to make things right.

        That said, I thought The Other Wind, particularly the character of Seserakh, was a letdown, though a letdown with some passages so lyrical that they make me cry. YMMV.

        • Mary permalink
          November 12, 2010

          I more or less agree with that assessment, although Irian and Azver can make a lot of things worth it for me.

        • Dorothea Salo permalink
          November 13, 2010

          Azver and Irian OTP!

          Damn, now I need to find me some fanfic…

        • Stephanie permalink
          November 13, 2010

          Wow, well then reading all of them might be worth witnessing the deconstruction.

  5. Stephanie permalink
    November 12, 2010

    Thanks, Mary!

    I’m not sure if I care enough about Ged to be annoyed that much, but I can borrow them from a friend so I might try the 2, 4…. plan.

    • Mary permalink
      November 12, 2010

      If you do I’d be curious to know how you find the experience, I don’t think I know anyone who has read them in other than the standard order.

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