A good chunk of Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction takes place in the Hainish setting – a future history wherein it is revealed that an extremely long time ago humanity originated on the planet of Hain and colonised much of the galaxy, including Earth, before a major disaster caused the worlds of the Hainish diaspora to lose contact with each other. The stories of the era relate to the slow, agonising process of the human family rediscovering its true, astonishing diversity, first in the era of the League of All Worlds and then, after a crisis which sees Earth conquered and the League dispersed for a while, a successor organisation known as the Ekumen.
Le Guin would explore this universe through a range of novels and short stories. The first Hainish short story – Semley’s Necklace, AKA The Dowry of Angyar – would be incorporated into Rocannon’s World, the first of the early Hainish novels. Another set of them – the tales of the twin worlds Werel and Yeowe and the bitter history between them – would form a story-cycle collected in the book Four Ways To Forgiveness and then, when Le Guin wrote an additional tale in the cycle, eventually reincorporated into that book in its republication as Five Ways To Forgiveness. The Word For World Is Forest is a long enough novella that whilst it was originally published in a story anthology (Again, Dangerous Visions) it got a standalone release later and is generally regarded as a short novel.
Other short stories of the setting, however, were not so easily absorbed into one book or another. In English-speaking markets, you would get all of them by picking up the anthologies The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and The Birthday of the World. Alternatively, the Library of America’s two-volume hardcover release of the entire Hainish series, compiled with Le Guin’s blessing, brings together all of the novels and stories in one collection, along with interesting alternate texts, essays, and other bits and pieces. For this article, I’m going to go on a quick tour of the Hainish cosmos in order to take in the sights which you won’t see if you just stuck to the novels. (Counting Five Ways To Forgiveness as a novel comprising an episodic story-cycle, in much the same way Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is seen as a novel comprised of three novellas. Come to think of it, perhaps that was Le Guin’s inspiration, since she’s on the record as admiring Fifth Head.)
The earliest of the wayward tales is Winter’s King, a companion piece to The Left Hand of Darkness, and like the people of Gethen in that world the story expresses itself in two distinct ways; the original 1969 publication of the story used “he” pronouns for characters hailing from Gethen, and then in a later revision Le Guin flipped the pronouns to “she”. Since the “she” version was published in Le Guin’s seminal 1975 short story anthology The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, it is this version which is most commonly available, with the 1969 rendition having fallen out of favour, though the Library of America compilation presents both. For a fun experiment, if you have the two versions to hand you can flip between them and see if you find the scenes land differently when different pronouns are used.Continue reading “Wayward Tales of the Ekumen”