Tue
Mar 30 2010 9:19am

Three short Hainish novels: Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions

Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile were published in 1966, and City of Illusions in 1967. They’re all available in one volume as Worlds of Exile and Illusion and I wish I owned it because the cover on my ratty old copy of City of Illusions was getting me some odd looks on the metro.

These books are all early works, all very short, and all set in the same universe—this is also the universe of The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Four Ways to Forgiveness and some other stories. Even when I was younger and had a passion for re-reading things in internal chronological order, I realised that reading the Hainish books this way wasn’t very productive. What all the books have in common is some past history and some technology, there isn’t an evolving arc of events the way there is, for instance, in Cherryh’s Alliance/Union universe. Later books contradict earlier ones, late stories have people from planets that were contacted centuries apart working together and so on. The chronology between books written decades apart is best left unexamined. These three books, however, go together very well.

Rocannon’s World is a story of an anthropologist stranded on a primitive planet. Planet of Exile is about a human colony abandoned on an alien planet. City of Illusion is about an alien lost on a far future Earth. They are all about isolation and culture, and the different things people can choose to do when cut off from their own culture and immersed in another. They’re all about exile and identity and coping with being cut off. It’s possible to see them all as dry runs for The Left Hand of Darkness.

Planet of Exile is far and away my favourite of these three, I read it all the time and know it well. I hadn’t read either of the other two for ages. I found them coming back to me as I read them. It’s a fundamentally different experience of re-reading.

Rocannon’s World begins with the short story “Semley’s Necklace”, and that’s why I picked it up to read now. I was thinking about the “sheep’s clothing” issue. “Semley’s Necklace” is a story that is science fiction and fantasy at the same time. Semley’s a beautiful princess questing for a necklace made by and stolen by the dwarves. She goes into their underground kingdom, they take her to a strange place, she returns with the necklace to find that many years have passed, the baby she left is a grown women, and the husband she hoped to please is dead. At the same time, she’s an alien, the dwarves are another race of aliens, the strange place is on another planet and she lost the years by travelling at lightspeed. The story gains its power because we can see all this simultaneously as true. It’s amazing and resonant.

The rest of the novel can’t maintain this double level at the same pitch. We do see Rocannon both as an alien anthropologist and as an Odin-figure, but it feels more forced. It’s also hard to like Rocannon, he’s too typical of the SF anthropologist hero, well equipped and resourceful, but too questioning of himself and the world to get away with that. I get the feeling that the story was pushing in the “what these people need is a honky” direction, in which Rocannon becomes a better alien than the aliens while saving their world and his, but Le Guin already right at the beginning of her career was pushing uphill against the weight of story.

One notably neat thing here is the overt notice of the colonialism of the human colonisers, collecting taxes from the aliens and raising their tech level without trying to understand them. This isn’t the way we see the League of Worlds behaving later, but that Rocannon sees something wrong in it and stops it while he does his survey is something. Talking about not the way we see it later, there are more outright aliens here on Fomalhaut II than in all the rest of Hainish space put together. I seem to remember a mention later that the aliens are actually all genetically engineered humans like the rest of the Hainish variants, but they really don’t feel like it.

The reason I like Planet of Exile so much is because it gives us the human and the alien points of view, and they’re both given dignity and neither of them is privileged. Like Rocannon’s World it has flashes of mythic resonance, unlike Rocannon’s World they are myths in their own context and not in ours. It’s also the Greenland colony in space—and in all of SF which has done so many colonial worlds I can’t think of another example of this. Space colonies in SF are always America, except for Planet of Exile, which is the Vikings in Greenland, waiting for another ship to come from home and slowly losing their tech. The other reason I like it is because I love the long year. The planet has a sixty-year long year, with children born in cohorts in spring and autumn. I love the society of nomads who build a winter city and the Alterrans clinging to the remnants of their civilization. I like the love story. It’s a stark simple story, beautifully told, barely long enough to be a novel in 1966, hardly a couple of hours read. I’d be quite happy if Planet of Exile were a modern novel and four hundred pages long, because while this is the story, the essence, the important bit, I’d love to know more.

The adaptation of the humans to the alien norm so that they might be able to interbreed may not be biologically realistic, but it’s done very well, and I don’t care anyway. It doesn’t have the problem Butler thought she had with Survivor on intermarriage, because for one thing it took hundreds of years, and for another at the time Le Guin was writing that’s what they thought did happen to the Greenland colony. Also, while it’s potentially a happy ending for Rolery, it isn’t unambiguously positive. Le Guin does have some of the humans horrified at the thought of assimilation—“Jacob Agat’s grandchildren will be banging two rocks together”.

I had forgotten, before this re-read of City of Illusion, that Falk, the lost alien wandering about on Earth generations after the conquest by the Shing, came from the planet of Exile and was a descendant of Jacob and Rolery. I’d also forgotten that it was called Werel, as that name isn’t used there, and therefore horrified to realise that this is also one of the planets in Four Ways to Forgiveness. I don’t want it to be! Banging rocks together would have been better.

City of Illusion is the story of a man questing for himself and his context. Falk is left mindless, without memory, and alone in the forest because the Shing don’t like outright killing people. He comes to a peaceful human settlement where he is cared for and becomes a person, a different person from who he was before. He travels west across what we recognise as a far future America to come to the alien city of Es Toch and get back his memory and lose his self. Most of the book is about his journey, and is like the journey in Rocannon’s World, one picaresque encounter after another. When he gets his mind back it becomes a much more interesting book, because then he has a dilemma rather than a quest. But it also becomes odd, because when Falk becomes Romarran he isn’t the character you’ve been following across the continent for ages, he’s someone different with Falk at the back of his head. I didn’t like City of Illusion as a teenager—and yet I kept reading it, because I liked the rest of Le Guin so much I kept thinking there was something I wasn’t getting. Either I’m still not old enough for it, or it’s mistimed somehow.

With the Shing, with their mindlying and hypocritical reverence for the outward forms of life, we have another take on colonialism. In Rocannon’s World we have a colonizer noticing some problems with the system. In Planet of Exile we have the Greenland colony paradigm. Here we have Earth colonized and ruled for its own good and by arbitrary and alien moral standards and not liking it at all. We also potentially have a colony coming back to free the mother world.

These three books are the books of the Enemy. In Rocannon’s World, the League is preparing for the Enemy to arrive, and Rocannon thinks that the preparation itself is shaping the League badly. He also wonders whether the FTL bombers and ansible communications might be as useless as the swords of Hallan against the Enemy when they come. The enemy he faces and defeats are human rebels. But the League is being formed as a League of defence against this nameless faceless powerful and inevitable Enemy. In Planet of Exile the Enemy may of may not be the reason why communication has been cut off. The few humans have no idea what is happening in the wider universe. In City of Illusion the Enemy Shing have taken Earth, and possibly the rest of the universe, but we don’t know about that. Romarran/Falk plans to get home before they know where his planet is and organise a force to free Earth.

In the later books set in this universe, we don’t hear much about the Enemy. The Dispossessed is set much earlier, when very few worlds have been contacted and the ansible that allows them to be a League is only just being invented. (In a nifty connection, which must have been done backwards, in these books we hear every so often about Cetian mathematics, so much more advanced than Earth mathematics.) The Left Hand of Darkness and most of the other stories are set much later, when the Age of the Enemy is history, and history we don’t hear anything about. I suspect Le Guin thought better of the Enemy and the Cold War mindset they engender, or perhaps when she thought more about interstellar war she just didn’t want to go there.

These are very early books—are they worth reading? They’re not where I’d suggest starting with le Guin—The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed and A Wizard of Earthsea are deservedly classics, up there with the best the field has ever produced. (Links are to my posts about them.) But if you already like Le Guin, then yes. She’s always worth reading. I love Planet of Exile and always have, and the other two are travelogues across alien landscapes lit with flashes of brilliance.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

8 comments
John Cater
1. katre
From what I recall, it turns out that there are two entirely unrelated planets named Werel in the Ekumen stories. So while the Werel in Four Ways To Forgiveness is a bit awful, at least they're not the descendants of the heroes of Exile.
firkin
2. firkin
i find these to be rather "quiet" books; i enjoy reading them but once done i have a hard time remembering what they're about, City of Illusions most of all. they do have interesting resonances with each other, and imho are very well placed together in one volume.

one correction: "But I have to warn you that the planet Werel in Four Ways is not the planet Werel in Planet of Exile. In between novels, I forget planets. Sorry."
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Katre and Firkin: Well, thank goodness for that! I really *really* didn't want it to be.

I guess it's one of those names like "Earth" or "Newport" or "Portland" that anyone could come up with multiple times.
Benjamin Safford
4. benjamins
I generally love Ursula Le Guin's plots and ideas, but the wonderful thing is that even when I don't (e.g., the Other Wind, City of Illusions), her writing is so beautiful that it almost doesn't matter. I can't think of any other writer whose books I'll read all the way through even when I can't get into the story.
firkin
5. Rush-That-Speaks
I think she left off working with the Shing as Enemy because she wasn't satisfied with how they came off-- in one of her essays she says that one of her children, when very small, came up to her and said glowingly 'I thought of some people called Shing, they're bad', and then she says that she feels she never quite caught the perfect simplicity of that and eventually decided that the form of a novel was working against it. Which made sense to me.
firkin
6. lampwick
What I want to know is how Le Guin went from writing three good, competent sf novels to the brilliance of _Left Hand of Darkness_ and _Earthsea_. If we could just bottle that we might have something ...
firkin
7. Shakatany
I'll always have a soft spot for "Planet of Exile" as I take my nom de courriel from Rolery's mother *grin*
firkin
8. tom H. shea
It seems strange to be commenting on something written 4 years ago, but... the internet makes that possible!
I love all the Hainish novels. Unlike most commentors here 'City of Illusions' is one that has a special resonance for me.
Falk is a man who has two selves, a higher self, wiser, cleverer, more noble - he is called Ramaren. When we meet Falk he has completely forgotten this 'higher self', for his daily consciousness Ramaren doesn't exist, yet Zove sees something in Falk's face which is an echo of Ramaren's life. Instead Falk only knows himself as Falk, driven by fear and longing. At the end of the novel the being who crawled out of the forest knows himself to be Falk-Ramaren, he is conscious of both aspects of himself and these two integral parts of his being help him achieve his purpose in life.

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