Three time travel stories from The Wind's Twelve Quarters, by Ursula Le Guin (for Timeslip Tuesday)

When Ursula Le Guin was eleven, she submitted a time travel story to Astounding Stories.* It was rejected, but, twenty odd years later, another time travel story became her first paid acceptance. Since then, time slippage has been an inescapable fact of life in Le Guin's universe, one in which characters traveling through the vastness of space age only hours or days, while years pass by on the planets. The vagaries of time passing, and the emotional consequences of time slippage, are mentioned in her novels, but it is in her short stories that she has confronted most directly the consequences and implications of time travel.

For today's Timeslip Tuesday, I offer a quick look at three of Le Guin's early time slip stories, all from The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Le Guin's first anthology of short stories. There are spoilers (the fact that these involve time travel, right off the bat), for which I am sorry, but there it is.

"Semley's Necklace" (written in 1963) became the prologue of Le Guin's first novel, Rocannon's World. It tells of a highborn lady from a far away planet, who journeys into space to reclaim her family's valuable necklace from a museum of interplanetary exotica. But Semley, determined to bring her husband and her daughter back this long-lost treasure that will save them from poverty, doesn't know the cost that she will pay...the cost of lost years. It is a sad and romantic story--not as complex as Le Guin's writing was to become, but still packing considerable emotional punch.

"Winter's King" (first published in 1969) was Le Guin's first foray into the world of Gethen, also know as Winter, to which she would return for The Left Hand of Darkness. It is part political intrigue, part an exploration of what it means for a people to be without fixed gender, and part a time travel story. It is told from the point of view of a young king, who is forced to leave her planet, her kingship, and her baby...and who, years later, returns.

And finally, this anthology contains "April in Paris," (that first story Le Guin got paid for) which is not sad at all. It is smart, and funny, and uses time travel most delightfully to bring a disparate group of lonely people (20th century historian, medieval alchemist, Roman slave girl, and alien archaeologist from the future, plus a lost dog) together. Since it's set on earth, Le Guin gets to have a bit fun with the cultural disconnects between modern and mediaeval France, making this a lighter read than the two stories above, although it, too, is emotionally moving.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters contains many other fine stories, but these three time travel ones stuck with me most. I think one reason for this is that they share another theme that Le Guin revisits often, one that resonates with me lots--that of home coming. Le Guin's books and stories are full of characters who voyage, and return; they seek places where they will be able to live fully, and they seek people with whom they can make "homes" for themselves, regardless of place. In all three of these stories, time travel is what drives the home coming/exile, and it does so very effectively, although perhaps a tad mechanically. In her novels, with more room to maneuver, she's able to create her stories of voyage and return without needing the short cut to emotional intensity that time travel gives to these stories.

"Another Story", written by Le Guin several decades after these, shows even more clearly this Le Guinian use of time travel to pack great emotional intensity into a a short story. It has already gotten its own Timeslip Tuesday post here.

And I have to stop now, because I am writing this on my lunch break at the library and I have to go back to work....

*"An Interview with Ursula Le Guin" at Writing-World.com


  1. Oh, wow - a LeGuin book I'd never heard of!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This is indeed a red-letter day. Gonna dig this one out immediately. Thanks.

  2. Well, I love time travel stories, even though I've never gotten fond of Ursula K. Le Guin. Maybe this would be my in with her! :)

  3. Hmmm...I'm not sure I know quite enough about your reading preferences, Jenny, to be sure, but if I were to suggest one UK Le Guin to you it would be Lavinia....which I must review some day sigh sigh.

    But you might well like these stories, too--some are, of course, better than others, but many have stuck in my mind.

    I hope you like them too, Tanita!


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