The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Le Guin’s City of Illusions: Language and Trust on Space Opera’s Margin

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 City of Illusions, first published by Ace Books in 1967. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

In the previous novel of our reread, we encountered the planet Werel and the struggle by descendants of the original Terran colonists to coexist with the indigenous Werelians at a moment of intense socio-political upheaval. Planet of Exile is a great example of the social-science turn in science fiction during the New Wave of the 1960s and exemplifies Le Guin’s concerns with how knowledge gets made and how cultures interact. Le Guin’s next novel, the beguilingly titled City of Illusions, furthers her interest in these subjects, asking not how knowledge gets made, but how can we trust that knowledge—what knowledge can we trust in a world of competing ideologies, myths, religions, politics, cultures, etc.?

City of Illusions is Le Guin’s third novel. It’s about twice the length of the previous two, at roughly 200 pages, and also her first standalone book (the earlier two were published as Ace doubles). The novel is regularly packaged with Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, since the three form such a nice early history of the Hainish cycle that made Le Guin famous. And if you’re familiar with The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, you get quite a shock cracking open Rocannon’s World, with its weird fantasy quest to call in a nuclear strike, or City of Illusions with its traversal of a far-future, pseudo-post-apocalyptic America. It’s a wild ride that finally gives us some clear information about Rocannon’s War to Come, the war that eventually came and left Agat and his people stranded on Werel in Planet of Exile. Things come full circle, we meet the Enemy, and we struggle to discern whether the stories of a galactic war can be believed.

Like Planet of Exile before it, City of Illusions is nothing special. It’s good—certainly better and more engaging than the rather droll Rocannon’s World—but we are still reading Le Guin in her early years as a writer, still honing her craft. But the beginnings of the literary writer we know has already begun to emerge, as evident in the very first sentences, which carry the mystical beauty of later writing: “Imagine darkness.” So it begins, starkly, but forcefully. “In the darkness that faces outward from the sun a mute spirit woke. Wholly involved in chaos, he knew no pattern. He had no language, and did not know the darkness to be night.” As this man—who we come to know as Falk—grapples with existence, learning what it means to be a human, to become conscious, so do we learn of the world. 

It’s a powerful tactic, like those practiced in her earlier novels, where Le Guin codes everything in the vague language of fantasy, but here it hits with an effectiveness, a clarity, and a grace that beckons to the writer she is becoming. It’s exciting, and although the plot lags along at first, Le Guin makes this world—our world, very far in the future, with human communities living in isolated family groups far from one another—lush and interesting. The prose flows along and we follow, happily.

The novel starts with a man crashing naked through the woods. He has no knowledge, not even language; he’s a blank slate. Humans living in a family compound, Zove’s House, deep in the woods find him and take care of him. They name him Falk, “yellow” in their language, after his yellow cat-like eyes that give him an inhuman (to them) appearance. A young lady of the family teaches him how to live again: language, stories, history, culture, and so on. After several years, Falk seems to be whole, to have become a full person among these humans, though he still has no memory of who he was, his previous life, or why he was naked in the woods. This mystery sets off the adventure as the head of the family he has lived with tells him to leave in search of his identity. He is to seek a great city called Es Toch, the city where the evil Shing, Enemy and destroyer of the League of All Worlds, live.

And so Falk journeys across a North America many thousands of years in the future, through the woodlands of the eastern seaboard, fords the Mississippi river, gets captured on the Great Plains, and finds his way to the Rocky Mountains (California, Kansas, and other familiar toponyms are still known to humans). He meets different culture-groups who treat him with fear, friendship, and indifference. He is captured by cattle-hunting nomads of the great plains, forced to become part of their tribe, and eventually escapes with another captive, Estrel, a Wanderer who knows the wilds and can lead him to Es Toch. They meet the King of Kansas, a black man who speaks riddle-truths, rules over cowboys, and sends them on their way.

Eventually they make it to Es Toch, where Falk is captured by the Shing and told the story of his identity. He is Ramarren, descendent of Agat of Werel from Planet of Exile, and he led an expedition of Werelians (descendants of the Terrans and native Werelians who had interbred following Agat and Rolery’s coupling) to find Earth, to see what had become of the League and why they had been abandoned. 

The Shing also tell Falk/Ramarren a different story than the one he has heard about how the League fell apart. Among Zove’s House and the humans he met, the story goes that the Shing are extragalactic invaders who destroyed the League of All Worlds, who rule by the Law (the notion that one may not kill), and who insidiously prevent humans from ever again creating a complex interstellar civilization. So instead humans live in post-apocalyptic isolation, retaining many of the earlier technologies and some of the knowledge of the League, but ultimately remain afraid of one another, of who is lying, of who is an agent of the Shing—or the Shing themselves!

But the Shing tell a different story, one Falk has been warned is a lie, for the Shing are the originators of the Lie. The Shing say that there are no aliens, that they are humans—Earthlings, in fact—who took power on Earth after rebellion, civil war, corruption, and militarism undid the League of All Worlds, creating a cultural cataclysm that left a power vacuum. The War to Come, in this telling, was a power play by the League of All Worlds to maintain obedience and order; when civil war came, it was interpreted by colonies like Werel as that War, the war with an alien enemy. The “Shing” maintain order on Earth by wielding the lie of themselves; they safeguard humanity by perpetuating the falsehoods of history.

It’s an enticing story, all the more so because it seems to be a staunch critique of Cold War militarism in both the U.S. and Soviet Union: prepare, the enemy is always just over the horizon! Turn aside from petty arguments about the loss of your civil rights, for there is a foreign enemy ready to annihilate us all! It’s the same rhetoric that led to the stripping of privacy rights in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror. And yet… Le Guin gives us only a few moments to believe the story before Falk/Ramarren’s warnings about the lies of the Shing kick in. We, too, come to doubt this alternative, more appealing history, even if the space-operatic invasion by an alien species seems somehow less plausible! So the final quarter of the story takes us through Falk’s “discovery” of what he assumes is the Shing’s plan: to send him back to Werel, since he is the only person who remembers its astronomical location, so that the Shing might destroy Werel, the only know planet that demonstrates that humans can survive, thrive, and grow in the wake of the League of All Worlds. 

His memory regained, Falk/Ramarren sacrifices his own happiness—to believe the Lie, to live among the Shing, to return to Werel with his identity intact—in order to pursue an unknown, frightening Truth. He places himself, Orry (the only other Werelian to survive the trip to Earth, since brainwashed by the Shing), and a Shing named Ken (yeah, I know…) on a lightspeed ship to Werel, each with their own story/history/narrative of things, to let the Werelians decide which way lies truth.


City of Illusions, as the name implies, is about illusion, myth, lies, and truth. It’s a classic tale of Cold War paranoia published under a helpfully vague title that gives nothing away, by an author most readers in 1967 wouldn’t have heard of, and sporting an enticing cover by prolific SF artist Jack Gaugahn bearing the tagline, “Was he a human meteor or a time-bomb from the stars?” It’s a space opera that brings into focus the larger context of the previous two novels, once again giving us a character and a situation at the margins of everything that seems to be happening. If you aren’t interested, your heart’s not beating! And even while it’s as exciting as that, it’s also a novel that asks serious questions about who we trust and why.

As Falk discovers in his journeys, language is violence. It creates, shapes, and gives meaning that can be misinterpreted; meanings can be forgotten, hidden, or changed. So language is the medium of distrust. People lie. They can smile, welcome you in from your travels, give you supper and a warm bed, and still slit your throat while you sleep. And you can lie to them—for ill or good. So why should they trust you? Why should anyone trust anyone? Some would say it’s the quintessential question of humanity, the whole reason “society” or governments or gods or whatever exists: to hold us all accountable not to lie (which isn’t the same as to be truthful). 

For the humans of earth that Falk meets, trust is virtually impossible because lies exist, because the Shing found the very notion of the Lie an exceptionally effective ideological weapon. This makes Falk vigilant as he journeys, but it also, ironically, makes him crave trust, to seek it out even to his own disadvantage, whether as he approaches the first vestige of human habitation after leaving Zove’s House, or as he grows closer to Estrel (which ultimately might be responsible for restoring his Falk-self after the psychic restoration operation).

This idea that language is a danger, that it contains within it the very thing that can undo human communities by virtue of being the medium of (mis)communication that permits untruths, non-truths, and lies, is a microcosm of what Le Guin gets at in Planet of Exile, which questions how knowledge (the body of things known to and by a culture) gets created. Language is not only a medium of communication but also of knowledge-making, so all projects of knowledge-making—for example, relating stories or writing histories—are suspect. 

City of Illusion is a novel of discovery not only for Falk but for us: each of Falk’s many, many encounters with Terrans and Shing brings new stories, new histories of humanity, the League, the war, the Enemy. The Truth Falk sought at Es Toch is really just the opportunity to sort through narratives, stories, and histories; the last half of the novel leaves readers likely even more confused than Falk as to whether the Shing are truly an extragalactic enemy that undid the League of All Worlds, or as they say, Terrans who kept the myth of an Enemy alive in order to prevent the chaos of the Years of Trouble that resulted from civil war, corruption, and nationalistic furor. Rather than focus on great battles, human heroes, and alien villains, as is the domain of typical space opera, Le Guin puts all that aside. She tells us we’re reading a space opera, but she puts all the drama in the psychological struggle to figure things from the edges of the conflict, after the fact, incidentally. The Hain cycle is space opera from the margins, the edges of everything the genre typically emphasizes.

In the end, Le Guin leaves us with no answers as to the history of the Hainish worlds and the fate of the League (we’re used to this by now, aren’t we?). She gives us what Falk gives the people of Werel: the options. Orry’s story, the Shing’s story, and his story. Unsure of the Truth, Falk defers to community judgement. So does Le Guin. She leaves us with questions, frustrations, suspicions, and what do you know? That’s life. We deal and we read on. Like Falk, we won’t ever stop asking after the Truth even though we know we’ll never find it. So says the Canon: “The way that can be gone / is not the eternal Way.” There are no capital-A Answers, and maybe that’s what it means to be alive.

Join me in two weeks, on July 15, as we continue our journey into Le Guin’s archives of the imagination with The Lathe of Heaven (1971), another of Le Guin’s Hainish novels. 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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