The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Le Guin’s Planet of Exile: Anthropological Speculations on Cultural Difference and Loss

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering Planet of Exile, first published by Ace Books in 1966. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

Among those who care about these things, there are (at least) two ways to divide science fiction. On the one hand we have hard science fiction, with its emphasis on extrapolating futures and possibilities from “real science,” from (exo)biology, (quantum) physics, geology, chemistry, etc. On the other hand, there’s soft science fiction and its supposedly contrasting emphasis on the less-serious, non-natural sciences: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and so on.

This is a distinction that, whether you care about it or give it any shrift, has held considerable sway in the writing, publishing, and marketing of science fiction since the genre’s beginnings out of purported attempts to imagine real-world, near-future technologies in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s pulps. In broad terms, the distinction between hard and soft science fiction has painted entire eras of the genre’s history, so that it is possible to imagine genre trends in science fiction as a pendulum caught between the gravitational forces of Science and science, the “real” (chemical building blocks, machinery, jet propulsion) and the social/cultural (gender, political systems, class). 

Of course, look at any attempt to taxonomize genre and it breaks down; after all, what is Star Wars? (I’ll kindly look the other way as you blast your answers; if there were any answer other than the conversation about the answers, the example wouldn’t be useful). But painting in the broad strokes that are sometime quite useful, folks tend to agree that science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s—the NeW wAvE!—forsook the hard-science-fictive, exploration-thirsty techno-fetishistic optimism of the Golden Age and instead turned it inside out. From launching outward to colonize the stars, authors turned to diving inward in an effort to understand who we are—who it is we’ve spent decades fantasizing about sending into space, to other planets, to liaise with alien babes and fight bug-eyed monsters.

We’ve inherited this easy gloss of the differences between the New Wave and its predecessor(s) partly because that’s what the New Wavers said; we took their word and made it history (ironic, given the book at hand). But it’s a difference without much of a distinction, made painfully clear in the very many novels of the 1950s, for example, concerned with the expansion of American capital and empire. Still, this (imagined) difference helped to establish authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, who was seen by contemporaries not only as a better writer than predecessors (and she was!) but as someone who could make a discipline like anthropology relevant to the extrapolations of science fiction.

Le Guin certainly deserves the distinction of being a founding writer of “anthropological science fiction,” though she was preceded briefly by actual anthropologist Chad Oliver (neither a great nor inventive writer) in the 1950s. Le Guin’s father was a famous anthropologist in part because of his association with Ishi, the “last Yahi Indian” of northern California. Her father’s work and relationship in particular with Ishi hangs heavily over Le Guin’s writing over the decades—something I’ll explore later in my reread of Always Coming Home (1985). Indeed, Le Guin’s science fiction seems to almost always be an attempt to grapple with the genre as a tool for exploring what it means to be human, for cultures (and human bodies) to adapt to new circumstances of life across the galaxy, and for these cultures to come into contact. Science fiction loves to tell tales of alien contact; anthropology is a discipline founded on the idea of what we do when we come in contact with others who aren’t like “us.” And Le Guin is pretty explicit about this from the beginning of the Hainish cycle, a series of stories we might as well subtitle “Tales of the Bureau of American Ethnology—in Space!”

Of the Hainish novels we’ve read so far, Rocannon’s World and The Left Hand of Darkness are the most obviously ethnography: they both feature HILFer/Ekumen agents sent to a planet in order to learn the culture (i.e. as anthropologists), produce data for the League/Elumen about the culture (i.e. an ethnography), and eventually play an ambassadorial role between League/Ekumen and indigenous people (there’s no clear 1:1 in anthropology, though many times anthropologists served unofficially as representatives both of indigenous peoples to government forces, and vice versa; E.E. Evans-Pritchard, for example, operated as both soldier and anthropologist in Africa, even raising local troops from among those he had studied).

Le Guin’s second novel, Planet of Exile, is a chronological sequel in the Hainish cycle to Rocannon’s World and was also published as an Ace double (this time with New Waver Thomas M. Disch’s Mankind Under the Leash). Planet of Exile takes a somewhat different approach to the survey and study of the indigenous population than Rocannon’s World, blending the idea of an ethnological study with the premise of a “lost colony” in a fascinating story that addresses cultural difference, exilic loss, knowledge keeping, and more.

The planet is Werel, also known as Alterra. The planet’s seasonal cycles are quite extended, with time being measured by days (approximate to ours), moonphases (lasting 400 days), seasons (roughly 15 moonphases), and Years (lasting 4 seasons). A Year on Werel is 60 years, and children are typically born in seasonal cycles, with few children born in winter. Winter on Werel is, not unlike in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, brutal and lengthy. Thus, the people of Werel spend the 45 moonphases of spring, summer, and fall growing and storing crops in order to survive the harsh 15 moonphases of ice and snow.

On Werel there dwells a subspecies of human long ago seeded on the planet—as all humans in the Hainish cycle were—by the Hain. These humans, who call themselves “man,” are technologically uncomplicated, practicing lifeways akin to Homo sapiens of the Neolithic era, including the implementation of agriculture and animal domestication, seasonal dwelling in cities built from mud bricks, and a kinship-based organization into ethnic groups. They have some artistic capability, they recognize the authority of male elders (chiefs), and they form sexual-marital relationships in a polygamous-patriarchal pattern. Planet of Exile takes place during the transition days between fall and winter, and during an historical moment that is witnessing the rise of an early multi-state empire forged by the violent Gaal people of the Southing.

The indigenous Werelians (Le Guin doesn’t really give us a word for these inhabitants in Planet of Exile) live alongside the “farborn,” whom they call “unman,” and who are the descendants of a colonizing group of Hainish who were abandoned on Werel 10 Years ago when their ship (and ansible with it) returned to Hain in order to help fight what is described in Rocannon’s World as the War to Come. Left on Werel for 600 Hain-years, the thousands of original colonists have dwindled in population, become inbred and isolated, and retreated with their remaining hundreds of survivors to one city on the coast nearby to the winter-city of the Tevar people.

Calling themselves “man” but referred to generally as the Alterrans after the name for their leaders, these humans enjoy permanent housing, indoor plumbing and heating, electronics, and other amenities of life familiar to spacefaring people. Yet they have no major advanced machinery, such as planes or spaceships, as these returned to Hain for the war effort. Moreover, after 600 Hain-years, the Alterrans have largely lost complete understanding of the knowledge of the League of All Worlds left to them by their ancestors, such that many things they do know—whether cultural, legal, or scientific—are learned by rote and enacted with ritualistic deference. Like the Werelians, the Alterrans consider themselves “truly” human, look down on the cohabiting species, and treat the other as idiotic barbarians.

This, in short, is an ethnographic overview of the Werel when Planet of Exile opens. I highlight these cultural and political details because they are, in essence, the building blocks of a science fiction storyworld. It is not only the characters—for example, the League/Ekumen agents, who perform ethnographic missions and bring back knowledge to others—but it’s also Le Guin herself who acts through her writing as an ethnographer, recording cultural differences and using the discipline of anthropology as a toolkit to construct fascinating what-ifs, what-thens, and how-sos.

These are the sort of details many writers begin with, and too often (sadly) beyond which few progress, as if the mere detailing of a storyworld were the thing that mattered in storytelling. For some, it may be; I know from my own experience that I dove into Tolkien and D&D and Star Wars novels more out of a desire to “know” all the “facts” about the worlds they imagined than for any other reason. I even complained a bit that Rocannon’s World was a series of Tolkienesque facts with a basic plot dressing. Planet of Exile, however, is a fun, passionate novel that begins to show Le Guin’s wonderful facility with blending world and story, ethnography and craft. While I would honestly not recommend Rocannon’s World to anyone except the most die-hard completionists, Planet of Exile is a fascinating look into the author as she developed her oeuvre.

So, if it’s more than just good anthropological science fiction worldbuilding, what is Planet of Exile about? The TL;DR version is it’s a Pocahontas-type story in which a colonizer falls in love with a young, bull-headed indigenous woman to the detriment of her family relations and his people’s trust in him as leader. He is Agat, she is Rolery. He is the Alterran leader and she the granddaughter of the Tevar chief, Wold. Thankfully, Wold is an odd-one-out among the Werelians, since one of his five wives was a farborn. Things don’t go as poorly for Agat and Rolery as they could, though at least one guy gets killed in a ritualistic honor-duel over whether a Werelian can marry an Alterran. The intercultural love story emphasizes how special and unique Rolery is, how she has the natural ability to mindspeak when no Werelian has ever learned, and so on. Agat is…well, he’s an exotic guy who noticed Rolery and he happens to be really passionate about her. That’s it. That’s the story.

But as a backdrop, Le Guin gives us a saga of the development of a Neolithic empire. The drama? Winter is coming (I see you, George!), the Tevar have yet to finish building their mud-brick winter-city, and a huge Gaal army of thousands is marching South. Already they have conquered multiple winter-cities and established control over the territory of other ethnic groups, killing off the men and leaving garrisons behind to ensure cooperation of the women and children whose lands they annex. This is the beginning of the consolidation of power as it played out among Neolithic groups in the Near East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas several thousand years ago. The events of Rolery and Agat’s love, from their meeting in his city as she boldly explores farborn territory to his bedding of her days later in a forest, to their eventual passionate reunion following the siege of the Alterran city, unfolds as the Gaal invade, make refugees of the Tevar, and are eventually repelled by the Alterrans.

The story in itself is not particularly unique, though I personally find it thrilling how Le Guin works through that moment of epistemic break when the first multi-state empire emerges, throwing political and cultural life as it has been practiced for thousands of years into sudden chaos. Le Guin was familiar with the effects of such major, history-altering changes, not only because her father, like many white anthropologists of the early 1900s, felt guilty and saddened by the genocide of indigenous peoples (with all the usual effectiveness of white guilt). Much of her science fiction deals with how historic events shape and change how humans live. Planet of Exile is about the closest we get to Le Guin writing The Clan of the Cave Bear. All of this is well and good, but what else is going on?

Exile, exploration, and ethics—three themes among many, and easily the guiding themes, of Le Guin’s Hainish cycle. If the unassuming novel Rocannon’s World was an exploration of how a man exiled on an alien planet by the distances of space travel survives, how he sacrifices his own ability to rejoin his people, in order to save both a planet and the League of All Worlds, Le Guin’s second novel develops the idea of exile more explicitly. Here she makes it a function of human/Hainish/League exploration of the cosmos. While the Alterrans are not exiled in the traditional sense of having been forced out of their land (they seemingly willingly left Hain in order to set up a colony on Werel), they are exiled in the sense that they are separated unwillingly from and can never return to their people. 

What’s more, these Alterrans live some 600 years later in the houses and bodies made for another world, with knowledge that is completely decontextualized and bears little meaning without its attachments to the meaning-making systems of the Hain. They are both a diasporic people, unable to return to the (now mythic) homeland, as well as internal exiles, living lives bereft of full meaning. The Alterrans can also mindspeak with one another, which leads the Werelians to view them as witches. They are an enclave, a dwindling population, inbred and demoralized, waning away on a distant planet seemingly forgotten by the people they believe they belong to.

For the late 1960s, this must certainly have been a powerful feeling, especially for young hippies, New Lefties, and countercultural malcontents looking for meaning in a world created by grumpy elders with no interest in the youths. The Alterrans, like their real-world counterparts, live in malaise, but as history shifts around them, they are not passive recipients—they become agents of change, bringing together Alterrans and Werelians, beating back the Gaals. And for the first time in 600 Hain-years, they become sick. As an Alterran doctor describes it to Rolery, it means that the Alterrans have finally begun to “adapt” to the molecular differences of life on a completely alien planet.

Where before unity between the farborns and indigenous people (the end goal of the League of All Worlds) was a seeming impossibility—both because of the inability of them to bear the others’ children, but also because of each culture’s taboos against relationships together—the changing historical parameters of life for the Alterrans and Tevar, as well as the new biological possibilities of union, present a possible end to exile. A possible beginning. Not a comfortable one, nor one without power imbalances… But a beginning.

***

Le Guin’s Planet of Exile is a fascinating little novel, certainly worth the few hours (if you’re a slow reader like me) it takes to absorb. Rarely does a novel so clearly show the author-in-development, the author becoming who she is best remembered as. Planet of Exile is that rare novel. It is also somewhat thrilling in that it follow Le Guin’s pattern, as in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, of providing an indigenous perspective on modern technologies, playing on notions of normalcy in a move that was key to anthropology for most of the twentieth century: to make familiar the exotic, to exoticize the familiar. Thus, we read of iron reeds from which water flows when a flower is turned, or small walls made of clear stone set into walls of regular stone, and so on. While the usefulness of such defamiliarizing techniques in anthropology is debatable, there’s no doubt that it can be a powerful tool for thinking about why we do what we do, and think what we think. It’s as if Le Guin is channeling a well-known satirical piece from an anthropology journal c. 1956, Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” (check it out if you haven’t read it; it’s quite fun).

This is the Hainish cycle in a nutshell: a project of defamiliarizing what it means to be human, what culture is and can be. It may not always be as radical as, say, The Dispossessed, but it is wildly, pleasantly transformative. Join me in two weeks, on July 1, as we continue our journey into Le Guin’s archives of the imagination. Be seeing you!

Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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