Even though I own the Library of America edition of the Hainish novels and stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, I’d not read most of the contents, or had extremely hazy recollections. So when Chris of Calmgrove organized a readalong, I was all for it. Over the course of 2023 I read several novellas and a multitude of short stories — I skipped The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, which were fresher in my memory — roughly in the order that Le Guin published them.
It’s not a planned, organized, or internally consistent sequence, but a rough collection of worlds and scenarios based on the premise that people from a world named Hain colonized other planets (including our own) many ages ago, and now, having matured past the point of younger societies, occupy themselves with studying and learning about those other worlds, and fostering a coalition called the Ekumen.
As I look back over the whole sequence, I found it interesting that the earliest stories, published in the 60s, are preoccupied with dread at the expected invasion of an external enemy — reflecting Cold War concerns. By the later stories, the focus turns to slavery and authoritarian rule perpetrated not by a vague extra-galactic threat, but by people against their own neighbors and kin. 25 years after the last story was published, that theme is still very timely.
Against this background of cruelty and injustice, the notion that there could be people who might actually find their fundamental life purpose not in killing and enslaving, but merely observing and learning, shines as a constant beacon of hope, which grows only stronger with time. And yet there is great pain in that role, too, as they are not supposed to interfere in the society they observe. The benefits of joining the Ekumen are meant to discourage the evils of violence, but it’s a slow process. When a civilization has lasted for many thousands of years, though, there is time to learn patience.
Our world, Terra, has not done so well in its learning, ravaged by environmental disaster in an imagined future that now seems around the corner in real life. With a track record of violence and exploitation, it presents a bleak picture, aside from the Terrans who become active in the Ekumen and seek a more peaceful existence.
But there is still that notion that given enough time, enough painful learning, and enough commitment to working together, people can grow into their truest human potential. We can delight in diversity and difference, wondering at the strange and marvelous ways that living creatures adapt to their environment. We can cooperate instead of fighting, share our strengths instead of attacking one other out of fear of our own weakness.
Many of the stories are preoccupied with relativity, with the disjunction between our experience of time and our experience of space. People who leave their home planet to study or work with the Ekumen, for example, know they will never see their loved ones again; by the time they returned, those left behind would be long gone. Going into space is, in many ways, tantamount to entering the realm of death, and the stories often wrestle with the grief of losing our ties to one another.
They also offer many examples of reconnection. I keep thinking about one particular story, called “The Shobies’ Story.” This is about a spaceship crew, drawn from a number of different worlds including Hain and Terra, who have volunteered to explore an intriguing but possibly dangerous new technology. While instantaneous communication has long been possible (via Le Guin’s invented device, the “ansible”), they are going to attempt instantaneous transportation of their ship and its contents to another planet, using the same principles. It’s not known how this will affect sentient beings.
The group is diverse and in some ways ill-assorted. They spend time together ahead of the mission, to strengthen their bond so that they’ll be able to support one another, but that falls apart after they make the transfer and find that they are each experiencing completely different things. They can’t rely on common sensory perceptions, because their sense of all outer happenings has diverged and left each one in a separate universe. The ship won’t even move, can’t get them back to home base while they are in this fractured state.
What do they do? They tell a story. Each one, in turn, tells what he or she has experienced, and the others listen. They don’t rebel against the others’ differences, don’t argue or contradict, but accept each piece, silently weaving them into a common understanding of what has happened to their group. And the ship begins to move.
Le Guin herself was a storyteller who was also a warrior for peace and justice. Sometimes her tales are overly didactic in their urgency, their alarm at the rate at which we are destroying ourselves and our planet, but at their best they present us with living pictures that help to re-orient our imaginations toward the truth. Ranging out into worlds that never were and bringing to life people who never will be, they remind us of who we really are.
I have not yet read all the Hainish stories yet; I’m saving four that were collected in The Birthday of the World (link is to Chris’s review) for another time. When I do, I expect to be taken on another marvelous journey, and to learn more about the possibility of a more human future.