Rocannon's World by Le Guin, Ursula K., 1966


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Here is a link to a review of the entire Three Hainish Novels/Worlds of Exile & Illusion trilogy.

There are only a very few authors about which I can honestly say, “they never cease to amaze me,” but Ursula K. Le Guin is one. I have read quite a few of her Hainish/Ekumen books, and without exception, they are incredible stories. This week’s book is Le Guin’s very first novel, the earliest Hainish novel, called Rocannon’s World. It is a very well written heroic fantasy with strong SF elements. Four out of five stars.

Le Guin’s Hainish and Ekumen novels are only loosely connected, in that they all take place in a future history of humankind. Rocannon’s World does not give much of the background of this series, but it does hint at the depth of Le Guin’s fascinating universe. The story is basically this: A long time ago the people on a planet named Hain colonized many planets in our galaxy, including Earth. Eventually there was a crash of some sort, and all of the colony planets lost contact with one another. In Rocannon’s World a political entity called the League of All Planets had arisen and rediscovered interstellar flight. The League makes it its business to make contact with former Hainish worlds. So much time had gone by since the Hainish era that the people of each planet evolved to different forms, though usually still humanoid. The cultures of these various planets has usually crashed as well, and the typical level of technology that is found is usually somewhere between nomadic hunter gatherers to late Iron or Bronze Age, though there are exceptions. The League wants to build up a strong empire again because it is threatened by some enormous outside enemy, so they have been gifting technological know-how and tools to these cultures as they found them as a way to ingratiate themselves to these new planets, and to bulk up their own numbers. At the time of this book the League has discovered a dozen or so worlds.

On this particular planet there were several races of men, which was unusual. There were the Gdemiar, also known as the Troglodytes, or the Claymen, who had rediscovered the use of steel when the League found their planet. The Gdemiar have been lifted technologically by the League, and they had possession of a spacecraft that was capable of relativistic flight. There were also the Fiia species, who were closely related to the Gdemiar, but who were semi-nomadic and reclusive. They used a type of telepathy to communicate. Also on this planet, which is unnamed, were the Liuar, who had two castes. The Olgiyor, or “midmen,” were servile, and were indicated by dark hair and light skin. The Angyar, or “lords,” had the opposite appearance and were dark skinned and light haired. There were also rumors of other intelligent life on the planet, but they had not been catalogued at the beginning of the book.

Le Guin begins this particular tale with a myth. Semley is an incredibly beautiful Angyar who has just been married to a king on the northern continent in a land called Hallan. For generations Semley’s family had given a dowry of a jewel called the “Eye of the Sea,” which was worth more than just about anything else on the whole miserable planet. However the gem had gone missing years before and Semley wanted it back. So she went on a quest that took her to the Claymen who had cut the gem for her ancestors. The Claymen had taken the gem back years before and made a gift of it to the Starlords, who were the League’s envoys. The Claymen, because of her beauty, agreed to help Semley and put her on a ship that could reach relativistic speeds. They transported her to a world with a museum on it that was run by an ethnographer named Rocannon, who also because of Semley’s beauty willingly gave her the gem. Satisfied, Semley returned to her planet, but when she arrived she found that all her friends and family had aged and died while she was gone, due to relativistic time slip. Semley went mad and ran to the forest and was never heard from again.

Several generations later Rocannon, who had spent much of the intervening time in near light travel, arrived on the planet with twelve others from his museum to conduct research. While Rocannon was away from his companions his camp, in the southern hemisphere, was attacked and all his friends were killed. One of the big problems that the League was experiencing was keeping the citizens of worlds that they had recently raised up and armed in line, and rebellions were endemic. This group was from another planet called Faraday, and they were using the planet as a base to conquer others and gather an army to attack League worlds. Rocannon put all of this together early, and realized that he had to warn the League as soon as possible. Unfortunately, with his ship destroyed, he had no ansible. The ansible was an instantaneous communications device, by which messages could be sent anywhere in the galaxy with no time lag at all. The League, and the rebellion, also had FTL instant transportation ships, but they were deadly to humans, so people had to travel in slower-than-light craft that could get close to, but not pass the speed of light. Rocannon wished to call a robot FTL attack on the rebels and save the League the devastation that the rebels could deliver to them, and to do that he had to get to the rebel’s ansible.

Le Guin wrote this book as a modern take on a Nordic style heroic fantasy. Rocannon was joined by Semley’s descendent, Mogien, who was the king of Hallan at the time, a Fian named Kyo, and some of Mogien’s Olgyior, including a youth named Yohan. Rocannon and his party set off to the south to find the Faradayians and use their ansible to call a strike down upon them. The bulk of the book is given to the journey, and along the way many men fell to combat with other men and beings that were reminiscent of the supernatural, including a race of devolved humans that resembled vampires. Rocannon and his party journeyed across all kinds of landscapes and did battle with the elements as well as other men. Rocannon also learned a bit about the races of men on the planet, including legends about the splitting of the Gdemian and Fian races, the birth of the Lian people, and the common ancestor that all men on the planet may have had. He also met other intelligent races of men, and though none of that part of the tale was critical to the story, Le Guin told it well. Close to at the end of their journey the party came across a city of Fians that still lived in the southern continent. That race of Fians pointed Rocannon to caves in the mountain tops where he met and talked to The Elders, who were supposed to be direct descendants of the Hainish. Rocannon journeyed up to them and was given the gift of telepathy, but the gift cost him the use of his hand and the life of his strongest supporter, Mogien. Rocannon then used his new ability to steal into the Faraday camp, and used the ansible to call a strike. By doing so Rocannon sentenced himself to exile on the planet, as there was no craft available to return him to his home, and the nearest ship was ten years away. When the League ships did eventually arrive a decade later, after Rocannon’s death, they named the planet after him for saving the League from the Faraday rebels.

The one thing that I love about most Ursula Le Guin books is her use of anthropology. I consider Le Guin to be the heir to Chad Oliver because of the way she uses this science. Her stories really do need to be read to understand just how competent she is with anthropological SF. The various races that she populates her worlds with are as richly drawn as anything that Oliver ever did himself. She takes the time to devise lifestyles and methods of communication for all the various races that reflect the environments and genetic differences that they all have in a very real feeling way, and she describes them to her readers as deeply as someone practiced in that discipline would.

As I mentioned also, this book does have a strong fantasy feel to it too. It’s the tale of a peaceful man who is driven to revenge and goes on a quest to get it. Along the way he learns some valuable skills and is given a “magic” gift, which he uses to get that revenge. Once he has accomplished his goal, he swore off war and became a king, and apparently ruled justly and with wisdom. Sounds like classic fantasy motif, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It is a heroic fantasy where the characters throw themselves into battle and best just about everyone, with the gods on their side. Actually, I am just kidding about that last part. About that Le Guin says:

They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate and lacking any first-person forms for the verb “to be unable.” There were no gods in their legends, only heroes.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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