The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is Le Guin’s most famous collection, bringing together short stories published between 1962 and 1974 in various magazines. It’s a wide-ranging collection that really showcases Le Guin’s talents and each story is prefaced with an illuminating and humerous short commentary from the author.
For fans, such as me, it’s lovely to read stories that engage with her other works. The opening story, ‘Semeley’s Necklace’, is recognisable as the prologue to one her of first novels, Rocannon’s World. ‘April in Paris’ (the first story she got paid for) is a sweet, funny little piece about an accident of time travel bringing together a bunch of misfits, and also seems to be set in the Hainish Universe. ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ are set in early versions of Earthsea, the first of which has trolls in it, and the second features a wizard who isn’t quite what he appears to be. ‘Winter’s King’ revisits the world of The Left Hand of Darkness and in this story Le Guin (partly in response to critiques from feminists) changes the pronouns used to describe her androgynous Gethenians from the masculine to the feminine. This has an interesting effect on the way their society comes across to the reader. The Nebula Award winning ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ tells of the final days of Leia Odo, the woman whose political theories made possible the anarchist colony of Anarres in The Dispossessed.
There are two powerful allegories about science, ‘The Masters’ which is set on a future Earth where the study of mathematics and physics is forbidden, and ‘The Stars Below’ in which an astronomer pursued by some kind of inquisition is forced to hide out in a mine.
There are also some classic stand-alone science fiction stories which involve space ships and missions to other planets and, which like the best science fiction, also ask big questions. ‘Nine Lives’ is ostensibly about cloning, but reaches into philosophical territory, asking questions about identity and the nature of interpersonal relationships. ‘Vaster than Empires and more Slow’ tells the story of a mismatched crew of people on a mission to a planet far out on the edge of the galaxy where they find themselves at the mercy of a vast empathic life form that does nothing but transmit its terror at their arrival back to them. It’s a story about facing the fear of the other. ‘The Field of Vision’ is a story that takes on the nature of God.
Then there are some that are kind of unclassifiable. ‘The Direction of the Road’ is a story about relativity told from the perspective of a tree – have you ever thought about how people and cars must appear to a tree standing by the side of the road? ‘Things’ is one of Le Guin’s psychomyths, a dark tale set in an apparently dying world looking at how people face death and the giving up of ‘things’. ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ is a haunting allegory about the ways in which we rationalise the horrific abuses that underpin our society. It deservedly won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1973.
This is essential reading for fans of Le Guin’s writing, but probably isn’t the best place to start for new readers – for that I’d recommend one of the novels.