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Review of the SF of Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin, Grafton, 1974, 319 pp.

The Dispossessed is a melancholy work, a thrilling work, a work of brutal honesty and exhilarating insight. It's science fiction, complete with spaceships, settlements on a planet and its nearby moon, and a scientist-hero who only wants to be left alone and work on his possibly-galaxy-altering theory. It's also a smartly written, character-based work that transcends the genre as much as it inhabits it. The Dispossessed is one of two famous science fiction books, along with The Left Hand of Darkness (which I've reviewed previously in a column on feminist science fiction), that made Le Guin's reputation. She won the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel of the year for both books, but the awards certainly did not cause her to settle into a rut and churn out similar works. She has been prolific throughout her whole career and it seems as if she has always been trying something new.

I'll be covering two other major works of sf in this column: Always Coming Home, an extensive project finally published in 1985, and The Telling, published in 2000 and part of a recent burst of creativity on Le Guin's part. I'll also take a look at The Language of the Night, one of the many non-fiction collections that bring together Le Guin's thoughts on writing and other cultural matters. In terms of other genres, Le Guin has published many fantasy novels, the most notable among them the Earthsea series (once a trilogy, now an ongoing "cycle"), many books for children, volumes of poetry, several translations (notably of the Tao Te Ching and Angelica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial), mainstream novels, and short story collections. She's also edited or co-edited other anthologies, such as The Norton Book of Science Fiction. It's a sprawling oeuvre, so I've decided to focus on science fiction in this column.

What is The Dispossessed all about? Shevek is a scientist from the world of Anarres. As the book starts, he leaves his home planet and goes to the nearby world of Urras. What is he fleeing from? What does he hope to find on Urras? We don't find out the answers right away, but we gradually come to understand the two societies due to the straightforward structure. Alternating chapters tell the two aspects of Shevek's life: the ongoing story of his experiences on Urras, then his past experiences growing up and getting to the point where he has to leave Anarres.

While on Urras, he is kept away from the public and lives on a university campus. A number of scientists who understand advanced Simultaneity theory interact with Shevek, but they are clearly uncomfortable with many of things he stands for. Gradually, Shevek breaks free from the restrictions put on him, and comes to realize just how hierarchical and dangerous life on Urras can be. His only point of power is his promised breakthrough on the Principle of Simultaneity, which is a sort of macguffin, except that its potential of instantaneous interstellar communication shows up as the ansible in books that happen later in the shared Hainish history (as it's known) such as The Left Hand of Darkness. Everyone wants the Principle, and while the other scientists have glimpses of what it might be, only Shevek has the final pieces.

Urras is the society that is probably closer to our own, so Le Guin's anthropological creativity gets expressed in the society on Anarres. We learn about Anarres as Shevek grows up. It's a society founded on anarchical principles about 200 years previous by a woman named Odo, who was exiled from Urras at that time. Language and culture and custom have all been adjusted to create an aversion to property, to create a sense of community responsibility, and to make each person (somewhat paradoxically) totally responsible for their own actions. We learn a bit about Odo's ideals second-hand but where the story of The Dispossessed comes in, the society has calcified considerably. Shevek finds himself on the raw end of more than one deal during his life. For example, he somehow ends up with an emergency work posting that has nothing to do with science and takes him away from his lover Takver. He gradually comes to realize that the only way he will get his scientific work done is to go the propertarian planet of Urras. The end of the Anarres storyline ends with Shevek leaving his home planet with only the clothes on his back... which loops back to the beginning of the book and the start of the storyline on Urras.

One thing struck me on this re-reading of the book: whom does the title refer to? I had never thought about it before, but the obvious answer is Shevek himself, the most important character of the story, the one whose dilemmas and struggles are front and centre on virtually every page of the book. Perhaps that's one way of understanding the structure: as we learn how Shevek doesn't fit in on Urras, we also learn how he didn't fit in on Anarres. Both stories end up with him at the same point, leaving the planet he is on, with empty hands.

But it's a good title because "dispossessed" isn't necessarily singular. If it's taken in its plural meaning, the question raises itself again: whom does the title refer to? The people of Anarres have drifted away from their roots as permanent revolutionaries. They were exiled from Urras years ago, but have they truly made of Anarres a new home? Likewise, there are many dislocated people on Urras, as Shevek discovers much to the other scientists' dismay. To add to the layers of meaning, Le Guin has given the novel the subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia" which is in itself as ambiguous as the title, and easy to misunderstand. We can take a good guess as to Le Guin's own leanings, in the matter of which planet might be a utopia and what might be ambiguous about it. But there's no direct binary opposition, as the book is sometimes painted. For example, it's telling that the Grafton edition leaves off the novel's subtitle, and calls Urras the "authoritarian hell-planet" on the back cover. Le Guin's novel is much trickier than that, in the way that the tendrils of meaning work their way through the book. Never mind a contrast between anarchist heaven and authoritarian hell; the book resolves into something more like an examination of human nature under two diverse circumstances.

The Dispossessed is an excellent book, with influence that has resonated through many subsequent books (especially Joan Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean). It's a foundational work in Le Guin's career and a foundational work for the field of science fiction.

The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harper Perennial, 1989, 250 pp. (originally published in 1979 and edited by Susan Wood, revised edition published in 1989 and edited by Ursula K. Le Guin)

The Language of the Night is an intriguing collection of non-fiction. It collects works written from the mid-60s up until its first publication in 1979 -- the general time period of The Dispossessed and following -- and the revised edition chronicles many of the changes in thinking that Le Guin made up until the next item in this column, Always Coming Home in 1985. Le Guin explains why she would alter existing material in her "Preface to the 1989 Edition." Pronouns are changed to the non-gendered throughout, and Le Guin adds extensive comments to what turned out to be a controversial essay on The Left Hand of Darkness. More on that in a minute. Susan Wood provides her own introduction, explaining how she originally put together the pieces that make up this book.

The Language of the Night is divided into 5 main sections. The first, "Le Guin on Le Guin," is short, consisting of one piece in which Le Guin discusses a bit about herself and how she started reading and writing genre fiction.

The second section is called "On Fantasy and Science Fiction," and it contains a mix of general pieces on fiction and on some of Le Guin's works in particular. For example, in "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" Le Guin identifies certain strands of American thought that disapprove of reading for pleasure, which leads to a disregard for fantasy. "Dreams Must Explain Themselves" is an explanation of how the Earthsea series came about, insofar as Le Guin felt that she could explain her intuitive writing process. There's a short speech from 1972 when Le Guin accepted the National Book Award. Two more in-depth pieces cover Jung and the role of myth in modern fantasy, "The Child and the Shadow" and "Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction." In a somewhat uncharacteristic turn, Le Guin lambastes those fantasy writers who don't pay close attention to tone in their prose in the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie." She uses examples, including Tolkien, Dunsany, Lieber, and many others.

Next up in the second section is what I consider the strongest piece in the book, "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown." The title refers to an essay that Virginia Woolf wrote about the importance of character; here, Le Guin argues that only a few works of science fiction have ever achieved a truly memorable, unique, and real character. She refers briefly to Zamiatin's We (the subject of an entire essay later in the collection), argues that Tolkien's greatest character is actually an amalgam of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, and uses two other interesting examples, Thea Cadence from D.G. Compton's Synthajoy (with which I'm unfamiliar) and Nobusuke Tagomi from Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Le Guin also talks about The Dispossessed, whether it's possible to create a real character after all, and some works by Stanislaw Lem. It's a lively essay, showing Le Guin at her most engaged and engaging.

The second section concludes with a short piece, "Do-It-Yourself Cosmology," about the need for careful scientific speculation in sf.

The third section, "The Book is What is Real," has a title that refers to Le Guin's assertion that books stand apart from the lives of their authors. The section mainly consists of introductions that she wrote to her books after they were first published, i.e., once she had a few more years of perspective. Le Guin readers might already be familiar with these (for the record, the introductions are to Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Word for World is Forest, and The Left Hand of Darkness). Three essays about other writers are included here (Tolkien, Dick, and Tiptree).

The third section concludes with an essay on The Left Hand of Darkness, "Is Gender Necessary?" (1976). This is combined with the comments Le Guin added in 1988. The original essay seems to defend the use of "him" and "his" in Le Guin's famous novel about androgynous characters. The later comments show that Le Guin had totally changed her mind, and also her unease that her earlier uncertainty had been taken as such a blow to feminism as a movement.

The fourth section, "Telling the Truth," has a few short pieces about writing.

The concluding section, "Pushing at the Limits," has just two essays. The first is an excellent essay about Evgeny Zamiatin, "The Stalin in the Soul." Le Guin uses the biography of Zamiatin, a man who was persecuted for his writing and ideals, to argue persuasively that we need to do more with our freedom. "We are free, freer perhaps than any writers or public have ever been" (219) is how Le Guin puts it, and she also points out that while modern societies don't have censorship as such, there are the imperatives of the marketplace. An inspiring essay.

"The Stone Ax and the Muskoxen" from 1975 is about how sf is on the verge of breaking out of its ghetto. Le Guin says in her 1989 introduction, "I was perhaps more hopeful than wise" (3). This discussion across time, between Le Guin of the 1970s and the 1980s, is part of what I like about this revised edition. Le Guin is fully engaged with the world of ideas and, like any thinking person, she reserves the right to change her mind. The Language of the Night is one of many demonstrations of Le Guin's keen intellect.

Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harper and Row, 1985, 525 pp.

Music & Poetry of the Kesh, words by Ursula K. Le Guin, music composed by Todd Barton, 1985, 45 min.

Always Coming Home was six years in the making, a massive project involving Le Guin's best efforts to create an entire culture, convincing, complete, and worth reading about. It's largely a book of fragments -- songs, stories, poems, anecdotes, dramatic works, maps, illustrations, recipes, genealogies, and personal tales -- all in support of transporting the reader to a Northern California of some time not our own. As Le Guin puts it in her brief "A First Note": "The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California" (xi). The people who live in this area are called the Kesh and we start off with a young Kesh girl named Stone Telling. As I'll discuss in more detail, the book is divided between two types of writing: a section from the point of view of Stone Telling (usually 40 pages or so) followed by about a section (often four times the length) of background material on the Kesh and their world, mostly cultural items. The last 100 pages or so are called "The Back of the Book" and this part is much more dry and filled with facts. Overall, this is definitely not a typical novel.

Le Guin enlisted some help with fulfilling her vision of an entire world, and here I should note a few things about the original edition. Always Coming Home is commonly available in a paperback edition, which is mostly text, but it was first published as a box set. In this deluxe edition, the book itself comes in a trade paperback that is about the size of a large hardcover book. The edition is illustrated throughout by Margaret Chodos, in an anthropological vein (the drawings reminded me of Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known). Chodos also provides icons in the margins that indicate what is going on in the text, i.e., a vulture icon indicates that Le Guin is in the middle of a Stone Telling section, some romantic tales are indicated by a pair of quail, poetry by an intricately varied set of moon/shadow/separated yin and yang/double spiral symbols, and so forth (these marginal icons disappear for "The Back of the Book" section). There are a handful of maps in the text, and these are drawn by Le Guin herself.

Most intriguingly, this original box set of Always Coming Home by Harper and Row includes a cassette tape, Music & Poetry of the Kesh. For this part of the project, Le Guin collaborated with Todd Barton to create thirteen tracks in all, with three recitations of poetry from the book and ten original songs by Barton. The music is clearly folk music, very low on production values, as is appropriate. The lyrics are also sung in the original language of the Kesh, with a translation into English for each song in the accompanying booklet (the entire book is conceived of as a translation from the Kesh by Le Guin, which I'll discuss further, but we only get smatterings of the language in the book). The booklet also explains the context of each song. For example, this is the description for "Yes-Singing":

Words and tune of this song are traditional, more or less, but not sacred. The singers were teasing, provocative, and seductive; the men they were singing at tried hard to pay no attention, being held to celibacy for the period before the Moon Dance. The recording, made on the common place of Sinshan, may give a hint of the tense, wild atmosphere in town before the First Night of the Moon. The singers were Thorn, Chickadee, and River Flowing Northwest.

And yes, the song lives up to its billing (and there's a much longer description of the Moon Dance in the book). Most of the other music is less tense and wild, like the mood piece "Long Singing" which is described an excerpt from an all-night midwinter singing ritual. On the whole, the music is more haunting than catchy, but it's a nifty way of giving the reader an entrance point into this world.

In one of those bits of serendipity, two photographers were inspired by the publication of Always Coming Home to go out and take pictures of the geography of Northern California as described in the book. The photographers, Ernest Waugh and Alan Nicholson, contacted Le Guin, and their project became a Le Guin-endorsed companion volume called Way of the Waterís Going. It includes some gorgeous photography alongside various excerpts from Le Guin's writing. The book is actually more than a companion: it also stands as (another) excellent introduction to Le Guinís world, becoming an indispensable part of the encompassing vision of this culture.

So, what is Always Coming Home like? Despite all of my praise of the project, and its ambitions, the book is not an easy read. In some ways, the background material is the kind of stuff that impatient story-driven readers skip over completely, if it's in the middle of a book, or if it's an appendix at the end of a book, glance at briefly to make sure that there are no important story bits in it but otherwise never read. These extensive sections are like the world's most blatant transgression of that old writing cliché: Do all the background work, but hide it all from your readers. It's an old problem, a variation on the structural problem faced by most works of science fiction or fantasy: how to convey enough information about a world different than our own, but without boring the reader. With Always Coming Home, Le Guin, usually a careful writer who brings us into a new world by means of compelling characterization, has thrown this balance out the window. And why not? Why not, at least once, throw all caution to the wind and indulge your most full-blown world-building urges? At least Le Guin takes courage in her convictions, puts her considerable powers to the task, and creates the biggest and best all-in-one world-building book that she can. And the reader has plenty of warning signs; even the briefest of flip-throughs will indicate that more than half the book is non-narrative (or at least composed of unrelated anecdotes).

If you commit to Le Guin's approach, and read Always Coming Home not as if it is a genre work but rather an artifact from another time and place, the book is richly rewarding and worth the extra time. In some ways, the story of Stone Telling feels like an afterthought, especially when you start to notice some of the sophisticated framing strategies that Le Guin uses in the non-narrative sections. The comparison that comes to mind is Eco's The Name of the Rose, a novel that has many layers of perspective (someone finds a manuscript, that manuscript is an old man remembering his younger life, and so forth). In Le Guin's case, one of those extra layers is an unnamed person, who is clearly from much the same era as ourselves, but she is walking around Kesh and talking to the people. This person is often referred to as the Editor, although it's clear that she also did a lot of the translating. And expresses her frustration with her translation. Another layer is represented by a number of short sections from the point of view of a character called Pandora, who could be considered as an abstraction of Le Guin, just like the Editor but with artsier writing (the Pandora sections reminded me a great deal of some of the New Wave-era stories by Ellison or Zelazny, if that helps make my point). She worries about the narrative, talks philosophy in concrete terms, and so forth; the acknowledgments that close the book are written in her voice. There's a segment called "Pandora Converses with the Archivist of the Library of the Madrone Lodge at Wakwaha-na" (314) that specifically lays out the difficulties of writing about this pseudo-utopian society.

Although the sections of background material are rooted in the world-building impulse, these postmodern flourishes help illustrate one of Le Guin's key concerns. It's fine and good to create a different world but what's the point if the people are similar to ourselves? What about a different world that is truly different? The Valley in Always Coming Home is familiar in its geographical set of features, the flora and the fauna, and so forth. But the people who live there think differently than we do, and that's part of the narrator's problem. How to convey this mindset? How would we understand something truly alien? Science fiction runs into this problem all the time, from not-very-alien alien species to desperate workarounds for the oncoming singularity.

The Kesh people are indeed like us; in many ways, just as familiar as the geography. They live in small towns. They are a mix of hunter-gatherers and farmers (much more detail is available in the background material). They have an elaborate set of rituals to mark the passage of the year, and many other occasions along the way. Parents still disapprove of what children are doing (or of what other the children of other families are doing), and different towns still get upset with each other. In the story of Stone Telling, a nearby culture called the Condors is trying to take over as much territory as they can.

But the Kesh have diverged from our culture in startling ways. For one thing, they have a completely different view of history -- at one point, the Editor is talking to a scholar of sorts, trying to pin down where the Kesh are from, and she simply has no way of formulating the question that the scholar can understand. The tape of Kesh music that accompanies the book (mentioned a few times here and there) also caused some controversy: "we were able to record a certain number of songs and performances; but in this we were doing something which they never did, and often it was tactfully indicated to us that replication of the music -- of music -- was a mistake, perhaps a mistake concerning the nature of Time" (505). A strong strain of Native American respect for nature shows up in Kesh culture, but this may as well be as alien as anything else to our hyper-consumeristic civilization. And, as we discover in a background segment called "Yaivkach: The City of the Mind," an entire gestalt machine intelligence has separated off from the rest of civilization and has advanced itself tremendously. The machines interact with humans, but the humans, especially the Kesh, don't seem all that interested in the technology the machines freely offer to them. Again, not entirely alien, but bizarre enough when applied to an entire culture.

This is as good a place as any to talk about the didactic tendency in Le Guin's work. For example, what should the reader make of this passage? From near the end of the first segment of background material, and a subsection titled "A Note on the Backward-Head People":

The people of the Valley did not conceive that such acts as they saw and felt much evidence of in their world -- the permanent desolation of vast regions through the release of radioactive or poisonous substances, the permanent genetic impairment from which they suffered most directly in the form of sterility, stillbirth, and congenital disease -- had not been deliberate. In their view, human beings did not do things accidentally. Accidents happened to people, but what people did they were responsible for. So these things human beings had done to the world must have been deliberate and conscious acts of evil, serving the purposes of wrong understanding, fear, and greed. The people who had done these things had done wrong mindfully. They had had their heads on wrong. (159)

On one hand, Le Guin seems to have fallen for the typical loaded scenario of a post-apocalyptic story. Those who disagree with the Kesh are the ones who destroyed the world... it's hard to make a counter-argument within such a framework. However, while there are a few passages like the one I've just quoted, Le Guin makes the focus of this book the daily-lived life of the Kesh. And the Kesh, with this passage as the major exception, don't seem to care that much about the past. Their lives, of course, are still troubled; this is not some unchanging utopia. As the title itself says, the journey is never complete.

Interestingly, an issue that illustrates the title over and over again in the background material is also the main part of Stone Telling's story: growing up. How should someone raise their children to be mindful people? It's a task that's always new for every generation. Stone Telling's story is quite brief in comparison to the rest of the book (in fact, it only adds up to approximately 120 pages of the 525 total). Her mother has grown up in the same town as she has, but she has never known her father. When she is nine, her father comes back for a season, along with his army, then leaves again when his army is ordered to leave. He is part of the warlike Condors, and his mindset is often completely at odds with the Kesh (another way for Le Guin to point out the contrast between a character more like ourselves and the Kesh). It seems like a tragedy waiting to happen -- the peaceful Kesh, who can't really understand militarism, and the expansionist Condors, who see the Kesh as so much fresh meat for the war machine. Le Guin resolves this dilemma neatly, perhaps too neatly, but after all this is a depleted world where even evil is less sustainable than it once was.

The book is bookended by two poems. The opening poem, "The Quail Song," can be found on the accompanying tape, while the closing poem, "Stammersong," is a lovely evocation of the Kesh and the place where they live.

Always Coming Home has been recently reprinted by The University of California Press in a handsome edition that keeps all of the illustrations and other flourishes of the original edition. For the complete tape of Todd Barton music, however, anyone interested would have to track down a used copy of the Harper and Row box (often available on eBay).

The Telling, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ace, 2000, 246 pp.

The Telling is a stunning book, proof once again, late in her career, that Le Guin is one of the best writers in any field. Le Guin has written some of the most famous science fiction novels, and sheís not content to rest on her laurels, as evidenced by her recent burst of output, most notably a fifth Earthsea novel and a collection of Earthsea short stories, both excellent. The Telling itself is a strong science fiction novel, with smooth and sure writing, an interesting protagonist, and the ingenious construction of societies that has always characterized Le Guinís work. Itís also an angry work, as strong a condemnation of certain human tendencies like intolerance as might be possible.

A time of religious upheaval and repression has hit Earth. A girl named Sutty is trying to make her way through life without too much harm; she is also ambitious, so after a personal tragedy, she leaves her home city and applies for training with the Hainish Envoy system. The Hainish are a galaxy-wide civilization, contacting all of the humanoid cultures that long ago spread across the stars and subsequently were left to their own devices. With a long memory, Hainish methods of first contact have been refined by history and practice. Le Guinís famous The Left Hand of Darkness was also the story of a Hainish Envoy, in that case to a winter planet named Gethen populated by androgynous people. At first I was worried that The Telling, with another Envoy, would not live up to the high standard of The Left Hand of Darkness. Or even become unique in any way. Thankfully Suttyís story is indeed distinctive.

She is sent to a planet called Aka. Aka has a strange history with Earth, and recently Akans shifted from a semi-agrarian society to a hyper-industrialized system. Aka was contacted by Earth during Earthís fundamentalist phase and now the Hainish are trying to understand the people and culture that developed subsequent to that contact. Unfortunately the orthodoxy on Aka is now a bizarre and brutal mix of rabid capitalism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. All traces of the past are considered anathema, all history suspect, and everything has to contribute towards the technological leap that the Akans now officially want en masse. How could such a repressive system develop? How could change happen so rapidly? There are clues scattered all the way along, and Sutty makes some guesses from theory. It also helps that she learned the old languages of Aka while in transit; she has yet to see any traces of these languages, but she does know them.

After a dispiriting report to her Hainish superior, Sutty gets the news she has been authorized to make a trip to a small, backward town somewhere near the mountains. She is followed on her trip by an official, but she makes it to Okzat-Ozkat without much more incident. She tries to make herself at home and find a way to learn more about the true history of Aka. By about a third of the way through the book, Sutty has made some friends and has begun to learn about the telling. The telling is the system of culture that governed most of life before contact (see quotation following for more detail), and it is most remarkable for its complexity and essentially diffuse and infinite nature. In the course of her studies, she finds out that there is a centre of the telling, insofar as such a thing is not a contradiction in terms. The last third of the book is about Suttyís journey there and what she discovers; the ending of the book itself is Suttyís leap forward in intuition, proving once again the rightness of the Hainish envoy method of contact. Science fiction tends not to use an epiphany as the conclusion of a story, but here it couldnít be a tighter fit with the story and the underlying ideas. The telling has worked on Sutty, heightening her Envoy training while she is learning about Akan culture.

Le Guin as always demonstrates her anthropological acumen. And with The Telling, itís as if she set herself the most complex sociological backstory possible. I quote at length from a section where Sutty is digging into the telling:

Day after day she recorded her notes, observations that stumbled over each other, contradicted, amplified, backtracked, speculated, a wild profusion of information on all sorts of subjects, a jumbled and jigsawed map that for all its complexity represented only a rough sketch of one corner of the vastness she had to explore: a way of thinking and living developed and elaborated over thousands of years by the vast majority of human beings on this world, an enormous interlocking system of symbols, metaphors, correspondences, theories, cosmology, cooking, calisthenics, physics, metaphysics, metallurgy, medicine, physiology, psychology, alchemy, chemistry, calligraphy, numerology, herbalism, diet, legend, parable, poetry, history, and story. (91)

The long section in the middle where Sutty learns about the telling would bog down any writer except Le Guin. For Le Guin, this is exactly as it has to be, no less is acceptable. Itís like the map thatís as big as the geography itís meant to describe. For one book to contain a culture is by definition impossible; usually some level of representation is required, and itís a measure of Le Guinís power as a writer that she can describe a culture like the telling with a sense of fullness and life. If my description of Always Coming Home has scared anyone away from that book, The Telling is like everything about that book but reduced to half its length and shaped into the sympathetic story of one compelling character.

The Telling is a triumph of the first order, a wonderful science fiction novel with everything the reader could hope for in a work by Le Guin. Highly recommended.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Canada.

Last modified: November 24, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #19

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