Worlds of Exile and Illusion
Three Hainish Novels by Ursula K. Le Guin
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The individual titles in this collection were published in paperback, the first two in 1966, the third in '67. The book I have is a hardcover omnibus from the Science Fiction Book Club titled Three Hainish Novels. I bought it used and only the original copyright dates are given for each book, but Wikipedia says it came out in 1978. I know I didn't buy it until after I had read The Left Hand of Darkness, or maybe it was The Dispossessed, but I can't recall when I first read them, or in what order. The image to the right is the currently available paperback edition. Le Guin acknowledges editor Jeffrey Levin for corrections in the book club edition, but I'm not sure if there have been any further revisions. Below, I'll provide images from the first printings of the books. The first two were part of separate Ace Double editions, bundled with another author's work. I haven't done a complete word count, but I think they are actually novellas, although the designation for that may have changed over the years. It is currently accepted, at least for SF award purposes, that a novel starts at 40,000 words. I am sure City of Illusions exceeds that, but the first two can't be much more than 30,000.
Le Guin doesn't care for the designation Hainish Cycle for these and other related books and stories, yet even the current edition has that on the cover, as does a recent Library of America collection of the entire saga to date. I'm thinking it's more of a publishing strategy which she went along with rather than argue, and now she's stuck with it. On her own website she stated "The thing is, they aren't a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones." However, it's hard to consider them stand-alone stories either. Inconsistencies include the timelines of exploration and the technologies mentioned, but the connecting link is the planet Hain, and the explorers and ethnographers they send out to other planets. They claim (in some stories at least) to have originally seeded many planets, including Earth, with human, animal, and plant types millennia ago. Then there was a dark period in their history during which they lost space-faring capability, and the reasons for how and why that happened varies in different stories too. When they reestablish contact, evolution has made many changes based on planetary conditions, and it is possible the Hains indulged in some genetic manipulation in the original seedings. It is also possible that some of the planets they visit are inhabited by beings original to that world.
Rocannon's World is the first of Le Guin's longer fiction, be it novel or novella, and while it has multiple science fiction elements, it is in many ways closer to heroic fantasy. Published in 1966, its opening prologue is a previously published short story, although there may have been some revisions. "The Diary of the Angyar" originally appeared in the September 1964 issue of Amazing Stories, then was later retitled "Semley's Necklace." It is set on an unnamed planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, which is home to several identified hilfs (high intelligent life forms). Queen Semley is of the more human-like species, the Angyar, which at that time lived in a feudal society, replete with castles, and warriors that ride the skies on windsteeds, giant flying cat-like creatures, similar to the fabled gryphon. Semley knows of the legend of a jeweled necklace which should have been presented to her King as dowry, but which had been lost under mysterious circumstances. She travels to the caves of the Gdemiar, dwarf/gnome-like beings also known as the Clayfolk. They had been granted knowledge of manufacturing technologies by the Hainish League of All Worlds, including an automated spaceship for transporting goods to Hain. That ship is limited to the speed of light, or maybe just short of that. The leader of the Clayfolk believes the necklace had been in their possession at one time, but then sent to Hain. Semley convinces them to allow her to travel to Hain to retrieve it. Due to the relativistic effects of lightspeed travel, what to her seems just a few days is sixteen years on her world. She returns with the necklace, only to find her world vastly changed.
Gaverel Rocannon was an ethnolgist working at the museum where Semley retrieved her family's heirloom. He later initiated protocols that restricted Hainish interference with her planet, but did travel there himself for further study. By that time Semley was long dead, but he becomes good friends with another ruling family from that society. Lord Mogien dubs him "Starlord." Rocannon is alarmed to discover a force from a rival planet there, one which intends to foment a revolution against the League. Even though humans cannot withstand faster than light travel, there are robotic FTL ships, as well as a technology Le Guin invented, later to be used by many other authors. The ansible is a means of instantaneous communication between planets and ships. Rocannon's ship, containing an ansible, is destroyed, so he undertakes a perilous journey across the planet to find his enemy's stronghold, hopefully to be able to use their ansible to warn Hain of the impending war. The story once again shifts to fantasy mode. During his journey, Rocannon interacts with the Clayfolk, as well as the elf-like Fiia, the fearsome Winged Ones, and the most human-like Liuar, from which the Angyar were descended. SF elements come back into play when he discovers the enemy base, but another fantasy trope helps him complete his mission. A mysterious cave dweller teaches him the techniques of Mindspeech. Later, in his honor, the League gives the planet the name Rokanon.
In my research on Le Guin's career, I have not found evidence of something I suspect. It is possible she didn't initially intend for these and later stories to be connected, but perhaps was convinced to do so by an editor. I would love to track down those first Ace editions to see if changes had been made before the omnibus to add more connections. If the Hains had seeded Rokanon in the distant past, the Liuar and Angyar might be the result of that, but the other species could be native to the planet, certainly not evolved from the Liuar. Mindspeech does figure into the other two in this collection, but I don't recall it in later books, although later on in that paragraph quoted above Le Guin wrote "...what happened to "mindspeech" after Left Hand of Darkness?" I re-read that one about a year and a half ago, but if it was mentioned I've forgotten already (sucks to be old). Rocannon is mentioned by one character in the second story, identified as the source of the technique of mindspeech, but little else connects them. The style of these three stories also varies quite a bit, from the fantasy-drenched landscape of Semley's planet, to the action-oriented adventure in the second, to the more overt science fictional alien 'fish out of water' story of the third. Yes, there are connections, but I'm sure Le Guin could have dropped those and made each more unique. Remember, I said above that the timeline of events is confusing. The Dispossessed was the fifth book in the published sequence, but apparently the first in chronological order, since it introduced the man who invented the ansible. How many years separated that story from these? I don't know. The Left Hand of Darkness was written fourth, but takes place many years after City of Illusions.
Long before George R. R. Martin warned us that "Winter is Coming," Le Guin gave us Planet of Exile, set on another unnamed (until the third book) planet, which has a very long year, close to 60 Earth years. It is inhabited by a species that may be indigenous or may be descended from Hainish stock. They are visited by an expedition from Earth, which is a member of the League of All Worlds. The natives call the Earthers "farborn," and even though both are humanoid, interbreeding is not possible, at least not for a time of further evolution. The majority of Earthers have left the planet in their ship, leaving behind some tech, but not an ansible. Those remaining stay mostly in their own city of Landin, although there are a few who have intermingled with the native population, including marriage. The long seasons is not the only similarity to Martin's later creation. The Gaal are a nomadic tribe from the north who historically ravage the south as winter approaches, and there are dangerous creatures, Snowghouls, seldom seen, but stories about them haunt children's dreams.
Rolery is a native woman whose mother died in childbirth, and whose father, Wold, later took an Earth woman as a mate. Perhaps for this reason she is fascinated by the Earthers, and during one of her visits to Landin she meets Jakob Agat, one of Landin's council members. Sometimes his name concludes with Alterra, but that's not a family name but rather indicates his leadership position, and probably means "Of Terra." He was kin to the woman Wold took as wife, nephew or cousin. Both groups have mistrust of the other, but both Agat and Wold try to mitigate that with their interactions, and Agat's attraction to Rolery plays a huge role too, but not always in a positive way. This is the shortest of the three stories, and character development suffers because of it. I couldn't buy into the relationship of Jakob and Rolery, at least not from his perspective. Their 'romance' is very brief, and I couldn't understand his motivation, since he at times had a very condescending attitude toward her people, only embracing an alliance when he realized his people needed the help of hers to withstand the onslaught of the Gaal. Earthers had traditionally been immune to viruses and bacterial infections unique to the planet, but that seems to be changing, resulting in deaths from infected wounds during the fighting. Other evolutionary changes are taking place, leading to successful interbreeding of the two species. Combining native knowledge of planetary conditions and Earth technology, a new, stronger civilization emerges, one that eventually leads to star travel again.
City of Illusions is set on Earth, a post-apocalyptic world some twelve hundred years after the Shing have broken the power of the League of All Worlds. Are they the same force that threatened Rocannon in the first book? Possibly, but I'm not certain. If so, their motives and agenda have changed from that previously described. Humans gather in small enclaves, their main goal being to escape the notice of the alien occupiers, who seem to tolerate their existence as long as they eschew advanced technologies. The story begins with the discovery of a naked 'man' on the outskirts of a village somewhere in the forests of the southeast of the former United States. His yellow, cat-like eyes brand him as alien, but is he a Shing infiltrator? No one has ever seen one, they are only aware of the surveilling aircraft they have to dodge on occasion. They become convinced his memory is gone, and they take him in and educate him in their language and way of life. They give him the name Falk, which means yellow. Five years pass, he has a loving relationship with one of the village women, yet he is constantly besieged with dreams and visions of an earlier life. Falk even begins to wonder himself if he is Shing, and decides to abandon his friends and travel west to Es Toch, the mountain stronghold of the aliens. He encounters several other groups on his journey, most of them distrustful of any traveler. He is captured by a nomadic tribe of the central plains, then rescued by Estrel, a woman who says she has been to Es Toch and knows the safest route there.
Falk discovers that Es Toch is home to more than one kind of illusion. Most of the people he encounters are human, and it seems there are few Shing in the city, and he is sure those he does see are not with him physically, but rather are holographic projections. He is also not sure he can believe what they tell him, which is that they aren't aliens, but humans who concocted the story of the outside threat to save Earth from its own destructive tendencies. Falk has the talent of mindspeech, and he believes it is impossible to lie with the mind, but apparently the Shing have figured out how to do so. No matter how much he distrusts them, much of what they say convinces him of his true identity, that he is Agad Ramarren, emissary from Werel (the Planet of Exile), who had been injured when his space ship crashed on Earth. The only other survivor of that crash was a young child at the time, with no knowledge of the name or location of Werel. Falk is convinced the Shing's offer to help restore his memory will only spell disaster for his home planet. Can he figure out a way to thwart their plans?
Even though I've had this book for decades, I am sure this is the first time I've read the third story. Bear in mind I had read several of Le Guin's award winners first, so I was not as impressed with the first two "novels" and must have set it aside at that time. Now I can appreciate the development of her craft through this book and beyond. Le Guin began writing at a very early age, but wasn't published until she was 32, and had only a handful of stories to her credit before this trilogy. Then just a year later she began her truly mature work with A Wizard of Earthsea, followed by her first dual Hugo/Nebula award winner The Left Hand of Darkness only a year after that. Rocannon's World seems derivative of fantasy stories the author probably liked growing up, while Planet of Exile moved toward the more anthropological focus evident in her later work, but without adequate character development. City of Illusions shows a vast improvement in both character and plot development, and saw the blossoming of her lyrical descriptive style. It is the only one I can actively recommend, unless you're a completist like me, then by all means, seek out all her work. Very little of it will disappoint.
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