My first encounter with the work of Ursula K. Le Guin happened in my freshman year at Rutgers, when my friend handed me a book she was reading for a class and insisted I read one of the short stories in it. It was a short short story, she said, and I could finish it in a few minutes. The story was “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” one of Le Guin’s best-known works. In the story, the reader is introduced to the city (or city-state) of Omelas, a seemingly-utopian place where everything is perfect and everyone is happy. We come to learn that all of the beauty and prosperity of Omelas is dependent upon the suffering of one child, locked away in a cellar. Some citizens, when they learn about the existence of the child, decide to leave the city. They are the ones who walk away.
I recently reread the story for this post. During my reread, I thought about the injustice of Omelas, and how the people who left because they couldn’t deal with their new knowledge, also didn’t help the situation. Maybe they personally felt better, since they were no longer living in the city, but that child was still in the cellar. Should they have stayed and tried to fight the system? Le Guin doesn’t give us any easy answers in this story, or in any of her work.
Both of Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists, and Le Guin herself worked toward (but did not complete) a PhD in medieval French literature. While she chose to become a full-time writer rather than an academic, her novels and short stories, whether science fiction or fantasy, drew from these subjects. Her debut novel, Rocannon’s World, tells the story of an ethnologist traveling across an extrasolar planet in search of the people who sabotaged his research mission. While this relatively-short novel is not her-best known, it does establish some of the themes and settings she would explore in later works. Rocannon’s World is the first book in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series of novels and short stories where people from different planets begin communicating with one another and engaging in diplomatic efforts. For Le Guin’s characters, cross-cultural communication is not always easy. Things are lost in translation, and characters often seem aware that there is much they do not know.
Rocannon’s World departs from the tradition of “hard” science fiction common in the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s. While far-future technologies like faster-than-light communication are important to the story, Le Guin does not dwell on the technical details. We don’t learn how these technologies work, and we don’t really need to. The consequences of these technologies–their impact on the lives and relationships of the people who use them–are the focus of Le Guin’s work. As a reader, I have always preferred this type of storytelling. It is less “How does the spaceship work?” and more “What does the spaceship mean?” The human element is front-and-center, and Le Guin’s works are all the more compelling for it.
Throughout her literary career, Le Guin crossed genres, explored interesting relationships and power dynamics, and invented complex worlds that generations of readers have explored. You can find her work, including some of her most popular novels, at Rutgers University Libraries.