Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

The cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness" depicts a lunar-like surface with two opposite-facing profiles carved out of rock, against a dark sky.

By Eric L.

I read a lot of great authors, but that’s because I read great books! As we have been celebrating Women’s History Month, and HCLS has recommended a cornucopia of great material about and by women, I’d like to recommend the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Le Guin made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sci-fi and fantasy half a century ago, and she wrote a great book about gender fluidity way before many others broached the topic. Le Guin said she recognized the ability to tell complex tales through the work of genre writer Philip K. Dick. Later, she openly criticized the way he wrote some female characters. Dick agreed, they became friends, and he thanked Le Guin for her influence on his subsequent works. I’d contend that in itself amounts to progress! 

A great starting point for Ursula K. Le Guin is watching Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on Kanopy. It provides a great introduction to the writer and her work. The interviews with the witty and charming Le Guin are terrific, as are the conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and others about her influence on their writing and the genre. Gaiman astutely points out that the Harry Potter series owes a great deal to Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  

As I alluded to before, her most famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format) is a groundbreaking work, not just for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but also for challenging our conceptions pf western masculinity and of western masculinity and femininity in a clever and subtle way. The protagonist, an envoy to the planet nicknamed Winter, struggles to understand a gender-neutral people using the social constructs of his own culture. Left Hand centers political intrigue and a forced epic journey across an icy planet while giving glimpses at the envoy’s gradual enlightenment. The drama and action of an arduous journey mirrors the personal journey of the protagonist and the relationships he builds.  

The Left Hand of Darkness is worth borrowing just to read Le Guin’s amazing introduction concerning science fiction and writing in general. Over the years, she has taken criticism for using the pronoun “he” for the gender-neutral characters in the book. To which she replied that just because the book was finished, it didn’t mean she was finished learning. I like this sort of thinking, the idea that we can all grow more and move forward. 

The cover for The Dispossessed depicts a man standing on a barren wasteland, looking towards another purple-toned planet with the sun peeking over its edge from behind, and a red-orange sky.

Le Guin’s other popular work The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia may be the perfect book for now, as the story of two opposing political views on how best to organize a society – collectivism versus individualism. The book examines power and extremes, and interrogates the best way for a society to temper those impulses. 

The protagonist Shevek (all names are computer generated) is a scientist from the anarchist commune-like planet, Anarres. Against the wishes of many of his people, he takes the opportunity to collaborate with the scientists of A-lo, on the planet Urras. The latter is a more individualistic, capitalist society. Shevek is attracted to the opportunity to further pursue his work, as he has begun to suspect that his society has some faults. Le Guin uses the protagonist’s perspective and experience to compare the two societies. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth and adulthood on Anarres and his present situation in A-lo. I thought this a clever technique, in a sort of nuanced compare and contrast story, but perhaps that’s just my conflicted mind? 

I believe Le Guin’s biases are evident, perhaps intentionally, but the book offers a provocative look at entrenched beliefs. The two societies are located on different planets and only know each other via their society’s own information (sometimes called propaganda), very similar to the way each of us arrives at our perspectives, beliefs, and, yes, biases. Le Guin cleverly has each society colloquially reduce the other to one-word epithets; the “propertarians” and “anarchists.” It’s certainly easier to believe we understand each other when we reduce ourselves to singular adjectives. 

This would be a great book to have people with opposing viewpoints read and discuss. The fact that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist is evident in her work. Lastly, I’m inclined to conclude that Ursula K. Le Guin believes any thoughtful ideology should begin with a deeper understanding of each other and the forces that create fear and hate. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.  

Listening List: Six science fiction novels with great audiobooks

By Becky W.

I love listening to audiobooks. Anytime I have the option to occupy my ears (driving, washing dishes, mowing the lawn), you can be sure an audiobook is playing in the background. Despite all the benefits of audiobooks, sometimes when we finally get a book that’s been on hold for six weeks – we are disappointed to discover that we can’t relate to the narrator. A narrator can make or break our impression of a title. While we all have different preferences as to how a book is read, here a few audiobooks that, I feel, enhance their novel’s stories.

Bonus tip: to avoid those long waits only to return the book after five minutes of listening, try the “Play Sample” feature on Libby for a short preview of the narration.

The background is a solid bright green, with the illustration of a head wrapped in cord or wire. Where goggle would appear, the text "neuromancer" is repeated in black letters on white.

Neuromancer by William Gibson 
Read by: Robertson Dean 
Available through: Overdrive/Libby 

If you are science fiction fan, you have probably run across William Gibson’s Neuromancer. We first meet Case, an ex-computer hacker, in Chiba City, Japan – broke, drug addicted, and at rock bottom. After stealing from his former employer, Case is injected with a toxin, damaging his central nervous system and leaving him unable to access the virtual reality database known as the Matrix. He lands himself on the hit list of Wage, an infamous drug lord. On the verge of suicide, Case meets Molly, a cyborg working for a mysterious hacker, Armitage. Armitage agrees to help Case heal and regain access to the Matrix in exchange for his services as a hacker. Desperate, Case accepts the trade, not knowing Armitage’s motives or what services he must provide. 

Why choose the audiobook?

If you have not read Neuromancer (or if it’s time for a re-read), I highly suggest listening to the audiobook. Written from the perspective of Case, Dean’s spot-on embodiment of the character, along with his ability to shift into other unique and relatable characters, adds another level to this already iconic story.  

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Read by: Jon Lindstrom
Available through: Overdrive/Libby, Cloud Library, Audiobook on CD 

If you are new to science fiction (i.e., not quite ready to tackle the intricacies of the Dune universe), Dark Matter provides an excellent place to start. If, however, you are a science fiction boss… you should still read Dark Matter. Is there a little bit of plot hole time magic? Yes, but look past it – it’s worth it. The story is told from the perspective of Jason Dessen, a college physics professor. On his way home, Jason is approached by a man he presumes to be a mugger. In an instant, Jason finds himself abducted, drugged, and waking up in a world that is not his own. 

Why choose the audiobook?

I originally began this as a printed book, but switched to audiobook. Though the story quickly grabs your attention, Crouch’s use of fragmented sentences and one-line paragraphs makes this a clunky read. After starting in on the audiobook, I was able to experience these fragments as they were intended, as the sporadic thoughts of an abducted man. 

3. Sphere by Michael Crichton
Read by: Scott Brick
Available through: Playaway (what is a Playaway?) 

While Michael Crichton is best known for Jurassic Park (a must read and must watch), he has a huge body of work that contains some of my favorite sci-fi reads. Sphere follows psychologist Norman Johnson and a team of other scientists who are recruited by the US Navy to explore a foreign spacecraft discovered at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. After gaining access to the ship, the team encounters an alien intelligence named Jerry. Communicating through a large sphere found on the ship, Jerry exhibits a child-like and temperamental demeanor that sparks an interest in Johnson. After unexplainable events start to threaten the team’s safety, Johnson becomes desperate to understand Jerry and explain the phenomena taking place around him.

Why choose the audiobook? 

While technically science fiction, Sphere is also a psychological thriller. As Johnson dives deeper into Jerry’s thoughts, the reader constantly questions who is in control of the conversation. Brick’s narration enhances the suspense, so much so that it is worth reaching for the audiobook. 

Lange blocky letters spell out titles and authors. For first book, letters appear against an urban apartment block. For the second, it's blue letters on a black cover.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Read by: Wil Wheaton
Available through: OverDrive/Libby, Cloud Library, Audiobook on CD

I know, I know, I’m late to the game on this one. Honestly, when this book first came out, the virtual reality video game setting just didn’t spark my interest. But with the release of sequel Ready Player Two, I decided to give it a try… and it was definitely worth it. The story follows eighteen-year-old Wade Watts who spends the majority of his time in the global virtual reality network known as the Oasis. The late Oasis creator, James Halliday, left his enormous fortune to any person who could solve the puzzle he hid within his creation. Wade, like many other “gunters,” has dedicated his entire life to learning everything about 80s–obsessed Halliday and winning his fortune. 

Why choose the audiobook? 

This book is just fun to listen to. I am definitely not a gamer, but the intensity in the narration of this book made me feel as if I were behind the controller. I am not sure if I would have developed the same level of excitement and suspense in the narration of this book if reading a printed copy. Oh, did I mention, it’s read by Wil Wheaton… why wouldn’t you choose the audiobook!  

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Read by: Andy Secombe, Eric Meyers, Laurel Lefkow, Charlie Anson, Liza Ross, William Hope, Christoper Ragland, Katharine Mangold, Adna Sablyich
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

This story opens with eleven-year-old Rose Franklin falling from her new bike into what seems like the center of the earth. When Rose’s fall is broken, she finds herself in the cradled of a giant mechanical hand. Seventeen years later, the mystery of the buried artifact remains, and Rose, now a physicist, is consumed with solving it. The story unfolds as a series of question and answers conducted by an unidentified interviewer. The unnamed man attempts to reveal the mystery of the artifact through the accounts of Rose and her team, all of whom have had encounters with parts of the artifact. 

Why choose the audiobook? 

Neuvel’s question-and-answer structure lends itself very well to audio. While listening to this story, I really did find myself duped into feeling as if I was listening to an archive of interview tapes, investigating the mystery for myself. 

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Read by: Kristen Sieh, Hank Green
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour by Hank Green (sequel)
Read by: Kristen Sieh, Joe Hempel, Jesse Vilinsky, Nicole Lewis, Kevin R. Free, Hank Green, Robert Petkoff, Angelo Di Loreto, Oliver Wyman, Hillary Huber, P.J. Ochlan, Gabra Zackman
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

Hank Green and his brother John Green (author of The Fault in Our Stars) have made names for themselves, via writing and their YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, along with other online content. Throughout An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Green examines our newfound concept of internet fame while also delivering a funny, thrilling, and engaging science fiction story. While I have had opinions on this topic, I am not an internet celebrity (in case you were wondering). So, I was really interested to learn how Green (who has a lot of experience with internet fame) tackles this subject.  

This two-book series follows April May, a twenty-something living in New York City. When April finds what she believes to be a Banksy-inspired art installation, April and her friend, Andy, decide to create a YouTube video to introduce the giant robot sculpture (dubbed “Carl”) to the rest of the city. When a total of sixty-four Carl statues appear simultaneously all over the globe, April finds herself in the spotlight. 

Why choose the audiobook? 

While I definitely would recommend listening to both of these novels, the audio production of  A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor knocks it out of the park. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is written from the perspective of April, while the sequel switches perspectives among the core group of characters. I was already familiar with the characters from the first book, but I had doubts about relating to them if they were read by different narrators. I was extremely impressed with the attention taken in choosing the narrators for this book, and how well they embodied each of the characters.  

Becky is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The background is deep blue with geometric drawing, against which a group of women are silhouetted in black.

Review by Kristen B.

I know we all feel like we’re living in a disaster movie or dystopian novel (ok, maybe it’s just me), but sometimes misery loves company. Particularly, when it comes with a good dash of ingenuity and a lot of hope in humanity’s ability to solve big problems.

At the beginning of The Calculating Stars, a meteorite strikes Earth at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (basically right here), leaving ruin in its wake. Given this extinction-level event, Earth will become unlivable for humans within a century. The book takes place in the 1950s, as the space race has just begun. Now, it takes on a whole new level of importance as colonizing the moon, and maybe even Mars, appears to be our only hope for survival. The book is full of all the fascinating trials and testing required to put men on the moon.

Not just men. Emma York, Ph.D. mathematician and ace pilot (and baker of pies), is our point of view character. She and her fellow female pilots become part of the cutting-edge cadre of astronauts, because, as she argues, it makes no sense to send ONLY men for the future survival of the race…even Noah understood the principle behind two-by-two. For all of her smarts and derring-do, Emma suffers from fairly severe anxiety driven by perfectionism. The novel addresses both the need and the stigma of treating mental/emotional issues. Emma’s anxiety serves to complicate her fraught relationship with the program’s lead astronaut, a devoted chauvinist.

Kowal doesn’t shy away from the other pressing issues of the times – particularly racism. Black pilots face even more discrimination than female ones, and Black women receive the worst treatment (of no real surprise). Each chapter opens with a news clipping, many of which show the bigger societal picture, and it’s not entirely pretty. The debate rages about who goes to the lunar colony, including mention of fringe factions with all their many conspiracy theories.

As I noted above, there’s also hope and ingenuity and that feeling of “Yes, We Can.” For every setback, there’s a jump forward. For every human foible, there’s a shining example of people at their absolute best. We tackle the hard problems … because we must! I loved this book for its honesty and its hopefulness, and mostly for how Kowal wove them together. If you loved Hidden Figures, you will probably enjoy this.

The story continues with the mission to Mars in The Fated Sky, and a brand-new book, The Relentless Moon, takes a closer look at the trials facing the new colony. The Calculating Stars is also available as an ebook from Overdrive/Libby.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

The cover shows a dark background with the title and author's name in slate blue graphics. The letters look like they are dissolving into stars, with the dark background as outer space.

By Eric L.

Ted Chiang is not only a writer, he’s a computer scientist who is employed as a technical writer, as far as I know. This is Chiang’s second short story collection (a story from his previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas adapted into the movie Arrival). 

Frankly, I was rather surprised that Exhalation was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best fictional books of 2019, but it’s well deserved. That said, I’d implore you to give this collection a read even you’re not into sci-fi. These stories, like all great science fiction, are only superficially about science and the future.  

Although Chiang alludes to the technical aspects of whatever he’s describing, it’s all just the backdrop. Like all the great sci-fi writers, he uses imagined technological advancements of the future as the setting to tell beautiful existential tales. His stories concern how societies employ technology and, subsequently, how it changes individuals in profound ways.

There is a story about “raising” a computer program/avatar that not only interacts in virtual reality, but also actual reality. One story concerns a rigid time travel portal; another is about the perils of a robot nanny; an interesting one is about a mechanism attached to the eye that can record every moment (you can share the footage with your friends). My favorite features a machine that gives users the ability to communicate with a version of themselves that has made different life choices. 

I hope these descriptions will not scare readers away. It seems odd to even contemplate how rapid technological advancement could not change us. Some of the stories are better than others but they’re all worth a read, and I don’t think they’re overly melancholy. Recurring themes include acceptance, free will, masculinity, and control.  

I find Chiang’s work similar to that of Philip K. Dick. Chiang even describes how one of the stories included was inspired by an old Dick short story. Although I wanted to interpret the stories myself, I couldn’t resist reading the story notes at the end of the collection.

Special thanks to my book discussion group for helping me think through some of these ideas through a conversation over the internet.

Exhalation is also available as an eaudiobook through OverDrive/Libby and CloudLibrary, and as an ebook through OverDrive/Libby

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside and people.