Like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin is among the few writers of fantasy and science fiction to escape (partially) the genre label and be regarded as simply a major American author. She is, moreover, as much a woman of letters as a storyteller and poet. Her collections of essays, especially The Language of the Night (1979) and The Wave in the Mind (2004), offer not only shrewd commentary on fantasy, but also feisty arguments about women and writing, contemporary fiction, and the processes of the imagination.
Le Guin has published many novels and short stories, several of them multiple award-winners. Readers enchanted by A Wizard of Earthsea should obviously go on to its sequels, all of which take up, with variations, the coming-of-age theme. The Tombs of Atuan (1970) deals with the young priestess Tenar who, with the help of Ged, breaks free of a sterile underground existence to discover her real self as a woman and human being. The Farthest Shore (1972) investigates the purpose of mortality, as Ged—now Archmage—aids a young prince in discovering his destiny, while together the two seek to understand why Earthsea's magic has begun to fade. All three of these novels appeared within a short space of time and form a unified sequence. Much later, Le Guin continued the story of Ged and Tenar in Tehanu (1990), a somewhat somber yet powerful look at old age, the place of women in society, and what it is to lack, rather than possess, power. Further aspects of Earthsea are explored in The Other Wind (2001) and Tales from Earthsea (2001). This last volume includes Le Guin's "A Description of Earthsea," a kind of ethnographic account of the archipelago's history and culture.
Apart from her Earthsea fantasies, Ursula K. Le Guin's best known works are her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and her two science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974). In the short story—virtually a philosophical parable—Le Guin shows us the wonderful utopian society of Omelas, but then reveals what it truly costs, hardly anything really, to maintain its citizens' comfort and cultivated lifestyle.
Perhaps the best-known and most taught of all modern science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness is written in a tone even more gravely austere than A Wizard of Earthsea. Sent to a wintry planet called Gethen, the black envoy from the Ekumen discovers a world where the people are androgynous, becoming at certain times either male or female. Upon this framework Le Guin builds an intricate and moving study of politics, cultural chauvinism, friendship, and love. The Dispossessed is even more overtly about social ideals, contrasting two civilizations, one essentially capitalist, the other anarchist. Its hero, the scientist Shevek, isn't at home in either world, and Le Guin—with her Taoist belief in balance—makes it clear that there are pluses and minuses to each system. She returned to world-building in her most ambitious vision of utopia, Always Coming Home (1985), as much a dossier as a novel, since the work presents the customs, myths, rituals, and even music (on a cassette) of the Kesh people.
Though each of her novels and stories stands alone, Ursula K. Le Guin has created a body of work, an oeuvre, of great range and moral seriousness. Her many books—from the briefest children's picture album to her most recent novel (Lavinia, 2008)—testify to the commitment she feels to such themes as social and ecological responsibility, the nature of personal identity, the condition of women, and the importance of the imagination. Her writing is self–assured and wise, sometimes provocative, and always beautiful.
"For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing."
—Ursula K. Le Guin, from A Wizard of Earthsea