At least one book’s length, if not a whole library of, encomia of Ursula K. Le Guin has already been written by people far more learned than me. It’s so tempting to take this collection of her novellas and use it as an excuse to praise Le Guin as an author in general. Yet there isn’t much I can hope to add to that conversation. Yet The Found and the Lost, as a collection of some of Le Guin’s novellas, is itself commentary on Le Guin as an author: her ideas, her choices, her voice.
Collections are always curious things, particularly of novellas that were not necessarily meant to be together in the first place. It’s fortunate that Le Guin was able to curate this prior to her death. I’m not sure anyone else would have pulled together her works in the way she would have wanted. As it is, this is a collection of Hainish/Ekumen novellas and Earthsea works. I think I had read one or two of them elsewhere—they felt vaguely familiar—but otherwise I enjoyed that many of these were new to me. I started this in the summer of 2018, hoping to read it over a few weeks on my deck. Life had other plans, so here I am only finishing it now. But it was worth it.
All of Le Guin’s works, whether they are set in a future of worlds scattered amongst the stars or in an alternate world of islands scattered across an ocean, are deeply considered with ideas of power, gender, and class. These novellas showcase how she uses science fiction and fantasy to interrogate the extent to which injustice seems to be an artifact of the human condition and how much our social constructs influence it.
The novellas set on Werel feature a slave-owning caste eventually overthrown during a long, bloody civil war. Le Guin examines this society from multiple points of view: slaves, owners or privileged people, and the supposedly-neutral Ekumen observers. She interrogates the intersections of class, race, and gender. Notably, Le Guin’s protagonists, and indeed the majority of the characters in books, often have brown skin tones. Le Guin is careful to subvert the “whiteness by default” trope, to remark on the skin colours of black, brown, and white characters. These are the subtle ways in which she challenges our privileges and assumptions as readers.
Le Guin has less subtle ways of challenging us too. The Earthsea stories focus mainly on the role of wizards within the kyriarchy. The novellas take place at very different times in Earthsea’s history. One concerns the founding of Roke and foreshadows the establishment of wizardry as a male-only trade, which is reprised and expanded upon in Dragonfly. These stories remind me a lot of the main Earthsea cycle and its protagonists, Ged and Tenar: one of Le Guin’s trademark moves, in my opinion, is her stubborn refusal to give us heroes. These novellas really emphasize that people who have more power don’t always use that power in sensible ways. In addition to the truism that power corrupts, Le Guin points out that people are flawed in general. The most famous Archmage is no less fallible than a fisherman or fisherwoman, despite our yearning as readers for larger-than-life heroic mages who can beat back the forces of darkness.
In the end, Le Guin refuses to give us comfort. Her stories are unrelenting in their realism, despite being works of speculative fiction. The last story in this collection, Paradises Lost, exemplifies this approach. Le Guin’s take on a generation ship story feels very realistic in the way it deals with the emergence of a new religion and the gradual disinterest in the ship’s original purpose.
If this review has slipped back into discussing Le Guin’s work in a more general way, that’s only because The Found and the Lost is itself a comprehensive celebration of Le Guin’s work. She is a first-class author because she possesses those twin talents of both theme and storytelling ability. Reading a Le Guin story is to wrap oneself in another world for a time; this is the ultimate aim of almost any storytelling experience. Not every story of Le Guin’s is 5 stars and golden, of course. Some will resonate with you more than others. Yet even at her least engaging, Ursula K. Le Guin holds her own—and then some.