In a 2021 press release, literary executor Theo Downes-Le Guin noted that his mother had been “suspicious of literary awards and prizes,” so there was perhaps no small irony to the creation of the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction: an award now in its inaugural year, and funded by Le Guin’s literary trust. On the other hand, as Downes-Le Guin added at the time, his late mother also recognized the value of awards “in honoring a writer and increasing the visibility of good, undervalued writing.” And hey, the money involved—a cash prize of $25,000—wouldn’t hurt that fellow writer, either.
But what would be the parameters for such a prize? On a technical level, eligible work needed to be published in the US in English (directly or via translation, with the prize split between author and translator) between May 1, 2021, and April 30, 2022. It had to have a single author, be “book-length,” and be “imaginative fiction” in some capacity (i.e., with a speculative element: I won’t tell realist writers their fiction doesn’t count as “imaginative” if you don’t!).
What did all of this mean in practice? Good question. “[B]ook-length” ranged this time from Olga Ravn’s 125-page The Employees, up to Matt Bell’s 465-page Appleseed. (But if a novella is published as a standalone text, it often counts as a “book” in SFF.)
What writers do with those pages matters more, though. In establishing an ethos for the prize, the committee invoked Le Guin’s 2014 National Book Awards speech to define viable contenders as “realists of a larger reality, who can imagine real grounds for hope and see alternatives to how we live now.” As Le Guin said, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who … can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being.” Le Guin didn’t live to see all the challenges in recent years—a pandemic especially—but the weight of climate change was already upon us when she died in 2018. So too was how to handle the emboldened rise of nationalist, xenophobic, and otherwise divisive political movements. Hard times indeed.
But would imaginative fiction alone be enough to meet Le Guin’s vision? Or did championing a “larger reality” also require interrogating the insularity of literary communities? Thus, the Le Guin Prize also gives weight to those writers whose access to resources, due to race, gender, age, class or other factors, may be limited; who are working outside of institutional frameworks such as MFA programs; who live outside of cultural centers such as New York; and who have not been widely recognized for their work.
With all these factors in place, the first jurors had a huge challenge before them in winnowing possible nominees to a shortlist that would offer a more concrete vision of Le Guin’s worldly and ambitious call to literary action. But the prize’s first jury—consisting of adrienne maree brown (Emergent Strategy , a work of activist nonfiction), Becky Chambers (Wayfarers [2014-2021], Monk & Robot [2021-]), Molly Gloss (Otherwise-winning Wild Life ), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas ), and Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway )—seems to have been more than up to the task. Collectively, they encompass a more activist, fluidly speculative, globally minded, and experimental approach to storytelling. The shortlist they chose reflects these values well.
Notably, their selections range not only from science fiction and fantasy to folk and spiritual lore, and from species-wide tales to more personal struggles, but also from traditionally “adult” books to teen lit of the savviest nature—just as Le Guin infused great wisdom into texts marketed primarily to youth. That this first shortlist reflects a full spectrum of hope in the face of difficult challenges—and in its own imaginative reach—bodes well for the future of this prize.
Some of these nine texts, mind you, are more “Le Guinian” than others—for it’s no surprise that Le Guin left a great mark on SFF with her ways of seeing and writing about linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, and the contextual fluidity that blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy. But we would be in error if we assumed that the jury was looking for the “most Le Guinian” text—and indeed, I’d go so far as to presume that Le Guin herself would not be pleased if that quality were the basis of any jury’s awarding of the final prize.
Most of these nine books have their own splendid merits, which extend well beyond the interests of this prize. A few among them stand out, though, as strong contenders specifically for the stated mandate of the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. Let’s dive in, then—following the book order listed on the official website—and see why the jurors will have had a tough time choosing the first winner for this lucrative prize, which will be announced on Le Guin’s birthday, October 21.
We begin with After the Dragons (Stelliform Press). In it, Cynthia Zhang gives us a gently romantic tale of Eli, an Afro-Chinese-American who is in Beijing for medical research, and Kai, a local, terminally ill young man who saves and protects stray dragons. Their stories intertwine when the lab supervisor, Dr. Wang, coaxes Eli to take an interest in department research around dragon adaptations to the world’s climate crises, and the changed disease landscape these crises have created. As Eli dips a toe into dragon theory and praxis, he finds himself at a dragon shop where Kai, who lives with a novel and incurable disease, works—at least, when Kai isn’t sketching or tending to dragons of his own.
Although this worldbuilding could have gone in any number of directions—into the realm of illicit dragon fighting, into an exploration of the curious adaptations of the dragons themselves, or into a study of the disease that Kai is slowly dying of—these fantastical and post-climate-change elements take a back seat to the romantic spark between Eli and Kai: both their courtship and Eli’s struggle to accept that, for all his medical and academic savvy, he can’t even attempt to save Kai the way that Kai has saved so many dragon strays. They fall in love with each other, they have their falling out over all the ways that Kai will not change, and they reunite after Eli has reconnected with his own family, which allows him to heal by receiving acceptance not only for having a boyfriend, but also one who’s dying on terms all his own.
In short, this is a lovely bit of SFF romance, which plays out against a world in which pet dragons are quotidian Chinese critters with the potential to help humanity overcome new maladies in a climate-changed world. Outside this innovative element, though, the novel is fairly tried-and-true in its main story beats and themes. Certainly, After the Dragons presents “a holistic view of humanity’s place in the natural world,” as per part of the Le Guin Award mandate, and it offers hope through its more ethical research practices and an acceptance of people as they are. But there was a version of this novel in which those themes would have come forward through a more direct storyline about the lab work and the dragons themselves, and they are foregrounded less in a story about two young men finding each other and making the world a little less lonely for a while. That unwritten version would have been a stronger contender for the Le Guin Prize; this version has its work cut out for it in this list of nominees.
For example, Appleseed (Custom House) by Matt Bell is one of two far more sweeping, multigenerational, and multiple-POV texts on this list—each of which is undersold by comparison to their most obvious forebear in upmarket speculative lit, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Although Bell’s book follows three storylines across time (one in the past, one in the near future, and one in an even more far-flung future), he writes as if to give us a science-fictional inheritor to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), a text that weaves American settler myth into Biblical accounts of life after the Fall.
Here, Bell’s notion of the Fall draws from a wider mythic tradition (including Greco-Roman and witch-lore) to give us Chapman, a literal faun, as one of two brothers moving across the American wilderness with long-term dreams of tree-planting their way to a better future. For Chapman’s human brother, this better future will be one in which humans have “civilized” the wilderness entirely; for Chapman, it’s one in which he’s found the Tree of Forgetting that will allow him to forget he is a faun, and the harm that even his birth created, so that he can be a better brother. All of this, and the richness of interwoven storylines with versions of Chapman in other eras, is Bell’s creative estate. But in its focus on the importance of being one’s brother’s keeper, its vivid descriptions of settler life, the deep questions the novel asks about the human inheritance of guilt, and indeed in the role one destructive woman takes in the plot, Appleseed plainly draws from Steinbeckian tradition as much as from the tropes of contemporary eco-critical science fiction.
That said, the book’s concurrent storylines in near and far-flung futures give us a much harsher glimpse into how settler mentalities destroy the land and ultimately ruin even human thriving. In one narrative vein, we follow John in a near-future America ceded almost entirely to corporate control, even if some vestiges of a public state and national governance supposedly remain. John’s ex, a woman with whom he once worked on sustainability projects, is the egocentric leader of a corporation that plans to do something drastic and self-serving in the name of saving the world. He joins with activists trying to stop her—but detangling personal ego and culpability from such grand initiatives is never easy. A lot goes very wrong.
And we know it will, too, because our third storyline gives us a clone with partially human and hooved features, whose existence is tied up in fetching biomass for a mysterious machine in a far-future ice age. “C” joins with John and Chapman as iterations of an idea—not just of guilt and complicity, but also of striving (however vainly, in both senses of the term) to do better than we’ve done before. Together, these entwined narrative arcs don’t exactly make for a lighthearted read, and so Appleseed’s version of hope is not as generous as others on this shortlist. But the hope is there—however lean, and hard-won.
Moving to a more classically “genre” text, Elder Race (Tordotcom Publishing) by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a fairly obvious contender for an award inspired by Le Guin—and if the prize was meant to go for the work most clearly heir to Le Guin’s worlds, Elder Race would be the most suitable winner of these nine shortlisted tales. That’s because this piece not only involves an anthropologist, and reflections on the intrinsic failings of the discipline, but also a highly Le Guinian intersection between worlds of fantasy and worlds of science fiction, as seen through different points of view, time scales, and approaches to language itself.
On the fantasy side, we’re given Lynesse Fourth Daughter and Esha Free Mark: respectively, a less-accomplished royal sibling with something to prove, and her lower-born companion and dear friend. Together, they seek magic from a fearsome wizard atop a high, revered tower that is like no other construct in their realm, to combat the rise of a demon terrorizing their people.
On the science-fiction side, we’re given the true form of that “wizard”: a centuries-old member of the second wave of humans sent into the stars. A second-class anthropologist, Nyr is a cyber-genetically modified being posted on this world to observe the more “primitive” society that this first-gen colony has become. But even with most of his emotions mitigated by advanced tech, he also has his own “demon” to face: a terrible depression.
The story alternates not only between their points of view but also their languages, as Nyr’s high-tech systems reshape his speech for its local audience. One beautiful chapter places two versions of the same story in contrasting columns: the story Nyr tells, and the story Lynesse hears. And yet, one language is not intrinsically superior; indeed, there’s even something to be cherished in Lynesse and Esha’s treatment of the “beast” that plagues Nyr as literal, thanks to their linguistic gap. Elder Race holds ways of being, seeing, and speaking in tension, and offers an optimistic approach to the kind of world that we can build simply by sharing our disparate experiences—even if we can never fully bridge the perceptive divide.
In Part Two of this piece, we’ll continue our review of the inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction shortlist, with the other six texts in the official announcement order. Happy reading!