‘The Fliers of Gy’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

I could fill this list with Le Guin stories, but ‘The Fliers of Gy’, in Changing Planes, a later short story collection, is my favourite. So many of Le Guin’s stories have an anthropological lens; in ‘The Fliers of Gy’, the people observed by the visiting narrator ‘have plumage, not hair’, but she notes they are ‘staid, steady’ and ‘traditional’. Amongst them, shunned, misunderstood and yet occasionally revered, are the winged people, those who can grow fully-fledged wings on their backs and fly – analogues of anyone who is chosen by fate to stick out in their society and lead, irrevocably, a different life. 

Those with wings move between ecstasy at their ability and terror of it, especially because soaring above the earth is not without its perils – while you can sleep as you fly, you might also experience a wing breakdown, fall to earth and die. I’ve always loved this story because it’s about whether you answer the call of fate. If you choose not to, you avoid risk, danger and failure but you also lose the superpower of flying, the dreaming and the dizzy heights. And what does Le Guin think? She plays her cards close to her chest here, but seems to suggest the risk is worth it.

First published in Changing Planes, Harcourt, 2003/Gollancz, 2005, and collected in The Unreal and the Real, Gallery, 2016

‘Paradises Lost’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

‘Paradises Lost’ is one of the most compassionate and humane of Le Guin’s short stories, but if you’re snobby about sci-fi you’ll never see this because you won’t want to read about generation ships and interplanetary voyages. It’s a perfect example of how science fiction can be full of heart and expand one’s universe, whilst also being a great vehicle for asking questions about, in this case, our planet’s future. The children on this generation ship voyage only know Earth from virtual reality tapes – they have been on-board the ship their whole lives, heading towards a new habitable planet. But there’s a cult on the ship who don’t want to arrive at the new planet; they believe the journey itself is the purpose and want to cut off all connections to a terrestrial existence. For them, the voyage is life itself; life on Earth or other planets is a danger, or even illusory. This is just great plotting, and I wish someone would adapt it for television. There are conspiracies, propaganda, a love story, the question of what kind of home humans need and deserve – and just all-round brilliance. Put your genre snobbery aside and give it a try.

First published in The Birthday of the World, Harper Collins, 2002

‘The Bones of the Earth’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

Set in the fantasy world of Earthsea, this fable of teachers and pupils, of surrogate fathers and sons tells the tale of how an old wizard and his young apprentice stop an earthquake.

Le Guin writes fantasy like no other. Mythic wisdom? Le Guin has it in spades. But sometimes it seems she is not that interested in the fantasy part. For so much of this story the characters are concentrating on household chores: tending to the goats, cleaning the kitchen.

For this reason it is hard to find a single quote that does the story justice. The writing on every page is clean and beautiful. Such as in this moment just before the climax, where the logic of the words descends into doubt as the old wizard descends into the earth:

He had time to regret the sunlight and the sea wind, and to doubt the spell, and to doubt himself, before the earth rose up around him, dry, warm, and dark.

From Tales From Earthsea, Harcourt, 2001/Orion, 2002

‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

There are some stories that feel almost like a wounding. Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ was one for me, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s ‘Hell Screen’ is another. I can’t think of many stories that left me feeling as burned as ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’. It’s a complicated story but in one sense, it’s a warning about utilitarianism, the suffering borne by others and complicity therein. Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, it took me a while to realise that great evil almost always emerges from and is enabled by a process of abstraction. Murder becomes just a statistic read out on the evening news like the football results; an act that aids the murderers and erases the victims and their families. It’s much more difficult for ideologues to justify the unjustifiable when the actualities of what they did is revealed. I have a chapter in my recent memoir Inventory (Chatto & Windus / FSG) that recounts a number of killings during the conflict not in abstracted terms but according to specifics. So instead of ‘a Catholic or Protestant was shot today’, we are told the reality of, say, “a family were sitting watching Coronation Street on the television with their dinners on their laps and a trembling teenage stranger walked into their house and shot the father in the face.” Though Le Guin’s speculative fiction is a different world to mine, she was immensely influential for me, especially with this story. She tells us, ‘Do not allow yourself to look away. This is the cost. Are you prepared for someone else to carry that? And if you are, what does that make you?’ 

First published in New Directions 3, Nelson Doubleday/SFBC, 1973, and collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015

‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ by Ursula K Le Guin

The capaciousness of Le Guin is likewise a problem. The most famous of her stories is ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, which incorporates the moral questioning and philosophical weight of her speculative fictions, but also her ability to make stories that already feel like myth, graven into time. Her Earthseatrilogy does this, as does her now increasingly politically crucial novel, The Left Hand Of Darkness, set on a planet where gender is transitory and people remain gender-neutral until certain times. Perhaps you’re groaning and thinking this can’t be subtle, but Le Guin pulls it off, always deft in her framing of otherness but also in making quotidian things—cold winters, stone walls, the words exchanged in passing during friendship—appear in turn to make her worlds real. Some of LeGuin’s further short stories in Tales From Earthsea and The Birthday of the World are set in her existing universes, and for anyone who comes to love them they are excellent. Le Guin did the metanovel before David Mitchell was even born! However, here I’d like to stick to standalone stories, and hence…

First published in New Directions 3, Nelson Doubleday/SFBC, 1973, and collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015.

‘The Eye Altering’ by Ursula K Le Guin

This may not objectively be one of Le Guin’s best or even most notable stories. I remember reading it when I was thirteen or fourteen in a copy of The Compass Rose, an early-ish collection of her short stories. It took me a long time to find it again, because I remembered it as “the one about the paintings” and I misattributed it to Bradbury, of all people, for years. Has she done better work? Yes, but this is one I came back to and thought about, even when I didn’t know it was hers, and long after I grew up from that young reader into the sort of person who writes about paintings myself a lot. So Le Guin has come full circle with me, and so I pick this story.

Originally written in 1975 for a workshop given at Portland State University. First published in The Altering I, Norstrilia Press, 1976. Collected in The Compass Rose, Pendragon Press, 1982. Also available in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2015.

‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K LeGuin

Another too obvious choice?

Maybe. But it’s still a good one. 

I shouldn’t like this at all. It doesn’t do any of the things that I want a story to do: no characters, as such; no dialogue; no plot, in any normal sense of the word. Kinda preachy.

But what a lesson it declaims!

LeGuin knows exactly what she is doing here, and the place she takes us, the question she makes us confront – would you walk away from Omelas? – is profound and central to our claim to humanity. It is a question that seems more vital than ever.

What is your final answer?

First published in New Dimensions 3, edited by Robert Silverberg, Doubleday, 1973. It has been collected more times than there are Donald Trump lies

‘Unchosen Love’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

“Sex, for everybody, on every world, is a complicated business”, wrote Ursula, and she wrote a body of stories exploring sex and gender by taking it to other worlds where things are entirely different from our own, and yet strangely familiar. Sometimes I want to laugh at the strange concepts she comes up with, and the ersatz scifi ‘foreign planet’ names; but mostly I can spend a long time wondering what she is really telling us about fidelity, trust, intimacy, sex, love and relationships. This story asks: what does it mean if one person loves more than another? And how much is the relationship worth in comparison to the people within it? What does it mean if a marriage begins with a dishonesty? 

First appeared in Amazing Stories, Fall 1994. Collected in The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, HarperCollins/Gollancz, 2002/3

‘Brothers and Sisters’ by Ursula le Guin

She rules. This is just a taste of what she can do with a story. These realist tales make a mockery of the ghettoisation of sci-fi as genre. Transcendent realism perhaps, but her distancing devices work to polish the mirror of self-reflection.

First published in The Little Magazine, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2, 1976. Collected in Orsinian Tales, Harper & Row, 1976, most recently Harper Perennial, 2004

‘The Stars Below’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

Here I might just quote Le Guin’s own introduction to the story:

The popular notion of science fiction, I guess, is of a story that takes some possible or impossible technological gimmick-of-the-future – Soylent Green, the time machine, the submarine – and makes hay out of it. There certainly are science fiction stories which do just that, but to define science fiction by them is a bit like defining the United States as Kansas.

Writing “The Stars Below,” I thought I knew what I was doing. As in the early story “The Masters,” I was telling a story not about a gimmick or device or hypothesis, but about science itself – the idea of science. And about what happens to the idea of science when it meets utterly opposed and powerful ideas, embodied in government, as when seventeenth-century astronomy ran up against the Pope, or genetics in the 1930s ran up against Stalin. But all this was cast as a psychomyth, a story outside real time, past or future, in part to generalize it, and in part because I was also using science as a synonym for art. What happens to the creative mind when it is driven underground?

This is a story that sits at the borderland of historical and the mythological, and, clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

First published in Orbit 12, 1973. Collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, 1975, more recently Gollancz, 2015. Read online at Lightspeed here