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Contemporary master of short science fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin

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This is a guest post by Mariana Ashley.

Ursula K. Le Guin is a giant in the world of science fiction and fantasy, and yet in my experience very few seasoned readers of the genres have ever heard of her. I have mixed emotions when someone tells me they’ve never heard of Ursula K. Le Guin: I’m sad that they went so long in their lives without ever reading a living master of scifi, but I’m also stoked that I get to introduce them to her work.

Her stories can be dense enough to intimidate younger readers, yet her themes are deeply philosophical and cerebral—she often appeals to academics and veteran scifi readers. Le Guin ponders profound questions of civilization, gender, femininity, and war in her works by juxtaposing modern social conventions with otherworldly science and technology. To put it succinctly, Le Guin’s deep stories reward the reader more than conventional pulp fiction.

Both of the stories I’m writing about are form Le Guin’s short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, first published way back in 1975. The entire collection is worth reading, but there are two in particular that I’d like to bring to your attention.

“Vaster than Empires and More Slow”

This story is set in the far distant future, in a time when alien species and humans co-mingled with each other. A crew of aliens and humans (“Terrans” as Le Guin calls them) man a ship called Gum on an expedition to survey a distant planet for potential colonization. The planet in question, World 4470, is light years away from their launch base, but it only takes them 10 hours or so to travel there. The crew is a mix of scientists and analysts who could lend a number of useful skills to the expedition. But there’s one character—Osden—whose much different from everyone else. He’s a human empath, which means that he has the power to read thoughts and sense feelings that others can’t. Needless to say, these powers make some of the crew members uncomfortable.

When the crew arrives to World 4470, they find that it’s rich with planet life but has literally no signs of animal life at all. Osden ventures into the planet’s lush wilderness to find why this is the case, and the crew loses track of him. I won’t tell you how it ends, you’ll have to find out.

“The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas”

This story is perhaps the most famous one in Le Guin’s entire short story catalog. People who talk about “The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas” often discuss its abstract and surreal style, with no clear central character to speak of, which makes it a little hard to sum up nicely. The city of Omelas is grand and utopian: everyone lives in perfect harmony with one another, enjoying the height of architecture, technology, food, and entertainment. No one is wanting for any good or service, there are no wars and little sickness to speak of.

However, everyone in the city of Omelas enjoys the spoils of their fortune at a cost. In order for Omelas to exist in such splendor, a single citizen must be subject to constant misery and torture such that the people of Omelas could never imagine. Each of the citizens of Omelas are told this information once they reach a certain age, and they are given the choice to continue living in the utopia knowing the cost or leaving for the real world. It’s a heady and philosophical short story, but one that I would recommend to any student of deep science fiction.

This guest post comes courtesy of Mariana Ashley, who frequently gives advice on applying to online colleges to prospective students. Reach her at