Utopias are common settings in Le Guin’s writing. In her utopias, she gives the reader a window into an ideal world, or at least a world as ideal as Le Guin can realistically envision. What this means is that paradoxically even her utopias have flaws, as in the stories “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and “The Silence of the Asonu”. In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Le Guin creates a nearly perfect city, with one large flaw: the suffering child. She does the same thing in “The Silence of the Asonu” when she manufactures a harmonious, idyllic land full of peaceful people and then shatters this paradise when the people fall prey to nefarious outside interests.
Le Guin's dystopias lie on the opposite end of the spectrum. In these stories, she offers a grim view of a possible future. In some of her stories, she uses past or current events to establish a sort of pattern of human behavior and then projects what the future will be like if mankind continues on a certain trajectory. For example, in the case of “The New Atlantis”, people continue to pollute the Earth. She imagines that given our current behavior, in centuries or millennia, the Earth might very well be in ruin. She imagines a similar fate in “Nine Lives”, with a world that is bleak and barren following a series of famines and wars.
Le Guin often uses her stories to explain the ways in which gender plays a role in society. To this end, she experiments with gender. In “The Matter of Seggri”, she makes gender paramount, with everyone’s fates entirely dependent on sex. In this story, she switches perspective from male to female to male again to discuss the ways in which living in a society with strict gender roles impacts an individual. In “Winter’s King”, she takes the opposite approach by riding a world of gender, which ends up causing its own set of problems.
The insidiousness of government oppression is explored in Le Guin’s “The New Atlantis” and “Winter’s King”. Though Le Guin’s writing addresses government oppression in both stories, she does so in two different ways. While in "The New Atlantis" she takes a more detached approach, merely alluding to the injustices visited upon the people, in "Winter's King" she has the public actually rise up against authoritarian rule.
While Le Guin’s writing cannot be classified as just fantasy, it does contain many elements of the fantasy genre (e.g., magic, supernatural creatures). These elements are present in “The Rule of Names”, “The Wife’s Story”, and “The Word of Unbinding”. These stories as well as her entire Earthsea series are also solid examples of magical realism. Magical realism is a style of fiction in which magical or mythological elements in a tale are presented to the reader as normal occurrences. This commands the reader to suspend disbelief and focus on other aspects of the story.
Le Guin celebrates nature in “The New Atlantis”, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow”, and “Nine Lives”. In both “The New Atlantis” and “Nine Lives”, the reader confronts a vision of a world that has been destroyed because of destructive social and environmental practices. In “Nine Lives”, Le Guin describes the dry, cracked surface of the planet, Libra, to further emphasize the unappealing experience of living on a dead planet. In “The New Atlantis”, Le Guin gives us a protagonist, who, though she lives on a ruined Earth, dreams of a future in which people live in harmony with nature, an optimistic vision given the state of her Earth. Finally, in “Vaster Than Empires but More Slow”, Le Guin describes a beautiful, untouched world, so complex and so beautiful that the plants even show emotions.
Le Guin revisits the theme of the innocence of children repeatedly in her short stories. In “The Matter of Seggri”, children of both genders have the freedom to live outside of the castle. They live happy, sheltered lives in the motherhouses until they reach puberty. At that point, male children are cast out from their homes and sent to the castle, relegated to the status of sex objects. In “The Silence of the Asonu”, the topic of childhood innocence is described as an exploratory time, a time before they become wise and retreat into silence. Even in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, children are innocent - both the children who are unaware of the suffering being endured for them, and the child who lives beneath the city being punished even though he or she has committed no crime.
Ursula Le Guin: Short Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Ursula Le Guin: Short Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.