|Author||Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Published in||Orbit, volume 5|
|Publisher||G.P. Putnam's Sons|
"Winter's King" is a science fiction short story by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin, originally published in the September 1969 issue of Orbit, a fiction anthology. The story is part of the Hainish Cycle and explores topics such as the human effect of space travel at nearly the speed of light, as well as religious and political topics such as feudalism.
"Winter's King" was one of four nominees for the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
Le Guin revised the story, focusing on pronoun gender, for its inclusion in her 1975 short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters.
When I wrote this story, a year before I began the novel The Left Hand of Darkness, I did not know that the inhabitants of the planet Winter of Gethen were androgynes. By the time the story came out in print, I did, but too late to amend such usages as 'son', 'mother', and so on...
In revising the story for this edition... I use the feminine pronoun for all Gethenians - while preserving certain masculine titles such as King and Lord, just to remind one of the ambiguity... The androgyny of the characters has little to do with the events of the story.
The original story centred on the idea that someone could age 12 years while the rest of their world had aged sixty. (Itself one of many to address the point made by Einstein: that if he could travel far enough and fast enough he could return and be younger than his own son.) A similar idea was used by Le Guin's in the earlier short story Semley's Necklace, later expanded as Rocannon's World. But that was a Rip Van Winkle-type fairy tale, where a person goes underground in the company of dwarves or elves, spending an apparently brief time but on emerging finding whole generations had elapsed. Here, the Gethenians understand the science of what has happened. The focus is psychological, someone confronting their own child who is now much older than they are.
It also includes the idea of mind manipulation, used earlier and rather differently in City of Illusions.
"Winter's King" tells the story of Argaven, ruler of a large kingdom on Gethen, a planet whose inhabitants do not have a fixed sex. She has been kidnapped and her mind apparently altered. Fearing this, she abdicates in favour of her infant child, with a reliable regent to rule until the child Emran is old enough. With the help of aliens from distant worlds (who include Earth-humans) she travels to another planet 24 light-years away, using a Nearly-As-Fast-As-Light ship. This means 24 years pass but she is no older. News passes by means of an instantaneous communicator (ansible) and all seems well.
On this planet (Ollul) she is cured of the mind alterations, which would have made her a paranoid tyrant had she tried to carry on. There she lives and studies for 12 years, learning about the wider society of many planets and about people with two fixed sexes, very alien to her.
She then learns that things are going badly back home and is persuaded to go home, which takes another 24 years. Sixty years have now passed: her child is now old and has become a tyrant. Public opinion is with her and she is restored, with Emran committing suicide.
The story ends there. But the 1995 short story "Coming of Age in Karhide" (which appears in a collection called The Birthday of the World) mentions in passing the first and second reigns of Argaven, saying little but indicating that the second reign was a success.
Literary significance and criticism
Susan Wood deems the story notable because of its scientific extrapolation of topics such as sub-lightspeed travel and alien biology, topics which "provide a framework for powerful psychological studies."
- Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 50.
- Le Guin, Ursula, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, (New York, Harper & Row, October 1975), story introduction.
- Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 48.
- Wood, Susan, Ursula K. Le Guin, (New York:Chelsea House, 1986), page 186.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. (1986). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). New York, NY: Chelsea House. ISBN 0-87754-659-2.
- Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2.
- Le Guin, Ursula (1975). The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-012562-4.
- Spivack, Charlotte (1984). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7393-2.