This is Part Two of a two-part review of the inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction shortlist. Most of the works on this list are strong reads outside the context of this award, with stories extending from the “small” to the “sweeping” in cosmic scope, and covering the spectrum of science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and folk- and spiritual lore. But a few of the nine finalists stand out as particularly strong embodiments of the prize’s mission statement: namely, to celebrate “realists of a larger reality, who can imagine real grounds for hope and see alternatives to how we live now.”
The first winner of this prize, which comes with a cash award of $25,000, will be announced on October 21, Le Guin’s birthday. Part One is available here. We continue our review, in official announcement order, with six more works below.
The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken (New Directions), has been described in other reviews as a satire or farce, and certainly as an indictment of or play on the “office novel” in space. Perhaps others have read and will read it as such, but I found it a poetic and meditative palimpsest of ideas, which invites the reader to transpose all manner of meaning on the prose, not unlike a visit to an art gallery. (And I think Ravn’s attribution to Lea Guldditte Hestelund, “for her installations and sculptures, without which this book would not exist,” lends weight to my reading, too.)
The book is given to us as a series of numbered statements that were collected by “the committee” over 18 months, with each number standing in for a different character. The committee’s objective? To better understand how these “employees” are relating to a series of objects in their care, and the rooms these objects are placed in. Are these object and spatial relationships affecting the employees—and if so, negatively or positively? In a way that enhances or diminishes production and workflow?
Mysterious, right? Who are the employees? What are these objects? What spaces do they inhabit? And how are the employees changing over time? Gradually, we learn that these employees are on a spaceship taking relics to a new world, and that they fall into a few key categorical binaries (human and humanoid being the most important) while retaining plenty of individual neuroses and behavioural deviations.
Some books are meant to be read to “uncover the mystery”—and yes, readers who prefer such texts can rest easy here, because there is a plot behind all these mysterious employee statements, and one which absolutely gathers momentum toward a dramatic and haunting final act. But this is also easily a book I could see myself returning to, just to sit with the space crafted by many of its passages in which the reader can interrogate their own assumptions around self, identity, community, work, love, life, longing, death—the whole fun, grand gamut of being.
Is this book hopeful? Does it offer viable alternatives to how we live now? Tough to say, because I think the answer also lies with what the reader values in the ending. Let’s just say, then, that The Employees is the Rorschach test on this year’s shortlist—and an impressive experimental tale, packing quite the punch for its brief length, whatever you might see inside.
Some books present on first glance as more categorizable. Certainly, The House of Rust (Graywolf Press) by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber has been promoted as magical realism—but in the reading it is better understood as a coming-of-age tale appended to oral folklore. Quest-based oral folklore often follows the cadence of “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” and contains ritual challenges in threes, along with magical helper-creatures. This is how the initial tale of Aisha, daughter of a fisherman lost at sea, and girl who goes out with a talking cat to save her father from the father of all sharks, unfolds.
But this haphazardly told initial story, which offers less precision and clarity than might be expected when describing marine scenes through the lens of diasporic seafaring Hadhrami culture, is only half the book. After Aisha goes through her three escalating challenges and makes her three escalating sacrifices to sea creatures, she’s left with a rescued father and the question of what to do with herself. The second half of the book involves Aisha coming to terms with not wanting a husband—despite the cultural expectations in Mombasa, Kenya—and her leaning on animal companions and wise elders for the strength to make a different choice.
These two halves could have made for completely different stories, or else been more seamlessly integrated with the help of a developmental editor. There are also plenty of other moments in each half when side characters and their interiorities are raised, then dropped. Moreover, Aisha as a main character is not well defined: at first, she’s desperate to find her father, then suddenly lacks urgency when offered aid by the talking cat; initially, she’s someone who speaks very little and plainly, as befits a character who hasn’t had much opportunity for schooling, and then suddenly she’s someone with an academic register, on par with the narrator’s.
The whole piece has the quality of a tale told on the spot—a not uncommon phenomenon for books published outside larger literary circles, with all the added editorial support they provide. Having a female character with the courage to step out from societal expectations explains this book’s placement on the Le Guin shortlist, and yet The House of Rust reads as if its initial premise couldn’t hold even the author’s interest. More than anything, it serves as a vehicle for depicting everyday life in a culture unknown to most Western readers, the book an homage to Mombasa and Hadhrami traditions, even as it struggles to forge a new path ahead for both.
By contrast, How High We Go in the Dark (William Morrow) by Sequoia Nagamatsu is both an ambitious novel in scope and exceptionally wise in execution. Its chapters carry us from one character and context to the next, and the next, and the next, but by the time all these stories dovetail in closing sections, the book has bound them all up in an even larger shared narrative: the history of humanity itself, and that deeper seed of life which lies before, beneath, and beyond us.
On one level, this is a story about a plague. At first, we’re following a man visiting a remote Siberian dig site, where his daughter’s team was studying viruses emerging in the thawing world. For this work, she’d left behind her own daughter with her father and his wife, and now he too is consumed by the mysteries at his daughter’s death site, where an unusual frozen body has yielded a virus that transforms cell structures, switching one organ into another. After the infection sweeps through the camp, we cut to another storyline, soon after the Arctic plague has devastated the world’s children especially, and discover that this terrible disease has led to the creation of an amusement park euthanasia site, to make the passage of the infected easier.
But a deeper thread emerges as we move through these and subsequent contexts, which include: a confused tumult of the dead in a nether space, all trying to help one among them be reborn; a pig that gains the power of speech in an organ farm used to delay the virus’s spread; a death hotel employee who helps people grieve their loved ones; a person who studies death and decay on a body farm; a scientist working on a cure; someone who makes elaborate installations out of the deceased; a plucky space-bound crew hoping to find a better world; a post-comatose man who builds communities of neighbourly care, and new routines for living and dying, for everyone who awoke to find their original families dead; a robo-pet repairman trying to lessen the blow of tech companions that cannot be repaired; and the entity responsible for the original virus and the unusual frozen body.
Ultimately, then, this isn’t a mere “plague novel.” It’s a meditation on our relationship to death, and to life, as a new situation calls upon humanity to renegotiate all our old associations with both. Buddhism isn’t expressly foregrounded in this text, for all the book’s Japanese touchstones; but that faith’s even-handed approach to death nevertheless flourishes here, in a surprisingly optimistic exploration of the many ways that we make mortality meaningful and rich with rituals that carry the seed of existence well past any given life. How High We Go in the Dark manages to find hope in how splendidly human we remain in our relationships with death and dying—no mean feat, and one that makes Nagamatsu’s book a strong contender for the Le Guin Prize.
Replete with a wealth of symbolic resonance, too, is Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past Is Red (Tordotcom Publishing). At first, this novel wallops you upside the head with all its repurposed brand terminology: a wave of contemporary materialist lingo that now serves to name all the people and places in Garbagetown, one massive trash heap on a ruined, flooded planet. But by halfway through this story of garbage people in a garbage world, many of those repurposed terms carry much deeper layers of meaning. Like its main character—a woman named Tetley living in a state of radical optimism via unflinching acceptance of her circumstances—everything about this novella steeps and steeps in the fetid waters of its imagined post-apocalypse until it yields a richer thematic brew.
Though Valente’s poetic-folkloric cadence has always been her own, here it also invokes flavours of Le Guin’s famous blending of fantasy and science-fiction worlds. The holidays, geographies, and customs of Garbagetown offer a fairy-tale sensibility; and yet, we also know that everything takes place in a society of climate-change survivors who desperately want to believe there’ll be real dry land again one day—and with it, the promise of a return to an era where they can act as wastefully as their ancestors did.
The Past is Red builds on an earlier story, “The Future Is Blue” (2018), but at this longer length Tetley’s character gains depth without sacrificing her unsettlingly spritely enthusiasm. While many believe that hope lies only in the possibility of returning the Earth to what it was, Tetley’s hope lies in celebrating what can be built here and now. What at first seems like childish and/or trauma-informed simple-mindedness thus develops into a powerfully existentialist celebration of living in the pragmatic present. This is an activist energy that has to bear up to a great many hardships and harder truths—but in doing so, it yields a compelling contender for this list.
One of the dangers of calling work “fantasy” or “magical realist” is how much such terms can erase the ongoing stories in many spiritual communities. Such might well be the case with Darcie Little Badger’s A Snake Falls to Earth (Levine Querido), which makes strong use of traditional animal-spirit realms (here called the Reflecting World) to tell its tale of how today’s grievous environmental afflictions are hurting an age-old relationship between human beings and other natural entities found in Indigenous-animist cultures.
Yes, on the surface this book is fiction: specifically, the split-POV tale of Nina in the human world and Oli in the animal-spirit realm, and of how their respective quests to reconnect with family bring them together to save something bigger than themselves. For Nina, this initial quest comes through some of her great-great-grandmother’s last words: a deathbed story told in the near-lost Lipan language that she struggles to decipher over her adolescence, while her mother is off saving the world in other ways. For Oli—a cottonmouth snake-spirit compelled by traditional rites of passage to leave the sanctuary of his first home—his quest begins with a desire to reconnect with siblings gone before him, and to reclaim his mother’s last gift to him.
But Oli’s quest takes a hard turn when one of the friends he makes along the way falls sick—and it’s here that Little Badger’s story becomes all too real, cutting to the quick of the pain felt among communities whose spirituality involves an active relationship with the natural world. When Oli takes a sick toad named Ami to a healer, Oli learns that his friend is dying of an illness that cannot be cured in his world. Its name? Extinction. Oli’s kind can in theory live for ages—so long as their species are also thriving in the human realm. To save his friend, Oli needs to venture to the other side, and find a way to prevent one species’s annihilation here.
This is of course where Nina’s story dovetails with Oli’s, because her grandmother’s last tale turns out to be the history of their land as a place where the two worlds touch, along with warnings about beings in both realms that want to see animal-spirits destroyed—and the flickers of healing power that yet remain in the family line. But Little Badger has also done something quite deft with Nina’s narrative arc: in it, she’s crafted the argument that preserving language and carrying stories forward is inextricably linked to the work of preserving all else in the world. Is story- and language-recovery enough? Of course not. But in A Snake Falls to Earth—and in the stated spirit of the Le Guin Prize itself—telling better tales is indeed foundational to all the other worldbuilding we need to do, to prepare for the hard work ahead.
If there’s any recurring trope in this list, it’s the absence of mothers off doing important work elsewhere—and yet, each book with this key detail spins an entirely different tale. In this regard, the last of the nine books on this inaugural shortlist is no exception.
In Summer in the City of Roses (Soho Tean) by Michelle Ruiz Keil, while mom is off on a well-earned residency, dad makes a devastating mistake with his teenaged son, Orr—but one that also creates space for growth for all the characters involved. This isn’t to excuse him for sending Orr to boot camp to try to toughen him up—no, that’s a terrible choice that costs him both his son and his daughter, as Iph runs away when he tries to tell her what he’s done with her brother. But in the vein of many poignant teen fictions these days, Ruiz Keil has chosen to focus with compassion on a difficult reality for young people: that sometimes their parents will make incredibly damaging choices; and that, in the wake of those damaging choices, everyone will be left to decide if and how they move on.
And what better literary backdrop exists, for themes of family rent so theatrically and disastrously asunder, than Shakespeare itself?
Ruiz Keil’s story is overtly inspired by plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, in which dreamlike pauses operate in the cadence of normal life, and as such has characters—who can quote Shakespeare and talk Greek mythology with ease—inhabit stories of familial parting and reunion in that most Shakespearean of surreal cities: the city of roses, a.k.a. Portland, Oregon. Of course it would be in this city—so filled with alt-culture scenes, identity exploration, and mutual-aid experimentation—that Orr and Iph (named after Orestes and Iphigenia, but also sounding very much like “or” and “if”: two key concepts in this tale of self-discovery) would quickly find themselves some merry fellow-travellers, and guides.
And so we have Iph and the damsel-in-distress-protecting George; Orr and a girl-band called The Furies, playing out local adventures in a city of so many complex relationships and ways of being; and their father, who tries to connect, atone, and show growth from afar. But while Shakespeare uses animal transformation as but a passing fancy, Ruiz Keil here enhances that narrative device, to give Orr a story far grander than the mere question of what his father did to him—and also, I suspect, to keep the tale from becoming too fixed on a specific Topic of the Day. Orr and Iph skirt around labels for sexuality, gender, and neurodivergence—because it matters less who you are, and more if there will be family and acceptance for you, once you know.
There is an impressive generosity in this novel’s Shakespearean treatment of familial transgression as something that can yet be built upon, after we’re first storm-tossed into the fantastical unknown. Summer in the City of Roses is not the most ambitious tale of hope on this list; but, whoever the final winner is, don’t miss the many other excellent volumes in this well-crafted first shortlist, which boasts a range and quality that offers something to most everyone seeking “real grounds of hope” and “other ways of being”—and bodes well for the work of this prize in the years ahead.
The Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction’s first winner will be announced on October 21.