Planet of Exile by Le Guin, Ursula K., 1966

Planet of Exile by Le Guin, Ursula K. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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

As Ekumen novels go, Planet of Exile has always left me a little dry. I think it was intended as a bridging novel in between Le Guin's other, better books, Rocannon's World and City of Illusion. I have always scratched my head when trying to figure out exactly what it did to move the larger story along. Not too much, in my opinion, but it is well written and an engrossing tale. Three out of five stars.

Planet of Exile is only very loosely SF, but what parts of it are SF are clearly anthropological. It is the story of three races of men on a planet, Werel that has a 60 year rotation around its sun, Gamma Draconis. The Tevar are distantly related to the Hainish, from whom they evolved to fit into Werel's ecosystem. They have developed agriculture and can make complex hand tools, but have no advanced technology. They are a superstitious race and rely on magical explanations for natural phenomena rather than science. They are wary of the Farborn, who call themselves the Linden, who are the descendents of a Terran mission to Werel 600 years (ten Werel years) prior. They are the children of a mission that sought to bring the Tevars into the League of All Worlds. The main group left suddenly generations ago to help deal with the outside threat and never returned. The Farborn are in decline, and their numbers are starting to dwindle. They have problems consuming Werelian food and cannot mate with the Tevars because of critical differences in body chemistry. The Farborn cannot even catch diseases that are indigenous to Werel for the same reason, and because they did not bring their own, they are free from all sickness.

As the story starts a Tevar girl, Rolery, visited the Farborn. Ordinarily the two had no contact because of the Tevar's superstition, and because the Farborn held themselves to an oath of noninterference with the Tevar, whom they called hilf, which was an acronym from the mission era that stood for "highest intelligent life form," but had since evolved into a curse. Rolery met one of the Farborn leaders, Agat, who was impressed with Rolery's courage. Meeting Rolery prompted Agat to visit Rolery's father, Wold, who was a leader of the Tevar. Agat proposed to Wold that the Tevar and the Farborn unite against a common threat from the third race of man on Werel, the Gaal. The Gaal were a nomadic race of men from the northern region of Werel who migrated south with each fifteen year long winter. Ordinarily the Gaal completed their migration, or "southing," as individual bands, but recently a great leader has arisen in the north and had united the Gaal. Now a mass of over one hundred thousand people was moving south and consuming everything in its path. The migration was backed by seventy thousand soldiers, a virtually unstoppable force on backwater Werel. The Farborn had sent assistance to other cities in the north as the Gaal approached, and had seen first hand the destruction that Gaal were wrecking on everything in their path. Wold tentatively agreed to a union, but some of the soldiers he sent out later to meet the Farborn attacked and almost castrated Agat because they knew he and Rolery had fallen in love with each other, and they could not abide a "filthy" Farborn touching one of their women. As a result Agat is almost murdered, and Tevar and the Farborn must stand alone against the Gaal.

The Gaal onslaught is too much for the Tevar, and they were virtually destroyed, their women enslaved and their granaries emptied. The Farborn fare better, because they built their city with walls and fortified it. The original Terran mission instructed those who they left behind to never use technology higher than the indigenous Werelians used. The Farborn stuck by their promise. As a result they could avail themselves of the highest technology on the planet, but could go no farther. Fortunately that was enough to give them an advantage in the defense of their city and outlying zones of control. The Farborn also were telepathic, as that discipline had been discovered by Rocannon thousands of years earlier and taught to the men of the League of All Planets. Agat healed from his beating before the Gaal arrived and he married Rolery, who had fled from Wold and the Tevar after Agat was ambushed. Rolery assisted in the defense of the Farborn city, and it was discovered that not only did Rolery have telepathy as well, but she was a "born natural" who could remain in telepathic contact with Agat without even trying.

As I mentioned above, this book does not on its own give the reader much to connect it to Le Guin's Hainish/Ekumen cycle, but on its own it is a fantastic story. Le Guin keeps the story tight and deals mostly with the themes of evolution, racism, prejudice, war, love and most importantly, the meaning of the word "human." Her characters were as rich as ever, and Wold and Rolery both go through quite a bit of development and change as the story winds on. Rolery changes from a young and clueless youth into a powerful and knowledgeable woman, while Wold evolves from a powerful and forceful leader into a child-like and emotionally infirm boy-like man. Le Guin also has something to say about the plasticity of human genes as well, and reveals that the Farborn have in 600 short years evolved to live in harmony with Werel's ecosystem. The ultimate result of this is, of course, that there is a chance that Rolery and Agat will be able to conceive a child, which says something about the biological potential of the Tevar as well. The Hainish-descended humans of Werel have over the long course of their evolution become seasonal: The women only go into estrous at certain times of the year. Rolery was a rare exception in that she was "born out of season," and was therefore a different age than everyone on the planet. But if the Tevar can mate with the Farborn, that will bring them closer to the human norm of constant, monthly estrous, and away from their animal-like state.

I really only have one criticism of these first three Hainish/Ekumen novels, and itís at its strongest only half-hearted. Le Guin as an author wrote these books in a voice that, to me, sounds a little look-down-your-nosish. Let me give an example or two. Le Guin often deals with cultural power conflicts in her works, but they are never really the same each time. Sometimes the powerful group will be brown skinned. Sometimes the more numerous culture will be white, but will have a cultural or natural disadvantage. But whoever is the less culturally evolved group, Le Guin often writes them as the more provocative, more hot-headed, and more prone to violence. Le Guin certainly does not write "Great White Hope" type stories, and does show quite a bit of cultural sensitivity, but in this sense the literary tools, for example, from the era of European expansion in Africa are here. In this book the turning point that doomed the Tevar was the attack on Agat. In the story Wold did not hold back in telling other Tevars what Agat had told him. And Rolery never really was a viable woman for any of the Tevars anyway, since she was born out of season. But the Tevar men savaged Agat anyway in a fit of animalistic aggression, and combined with other attributes of the Tevar, namely their reproductive cycles, it paints a picture of an animalistic race of men that needs to be saved by the Farborn. Maybe that is the reality of the story. It certainly ties in with a tale where the background question is, "are these changes evidence of evolution, or devolution?" But since both races were against such astronomical odds anyway, why not bring some synthesis to the story earlier and see what happens then? Anyway, Iím sure Le Guin could point me to thousands of similar examples from Earth's history, and I do not mean to criticize her writing style, or her literary process. I just want to point out a criticism that has occurred to me before.

Still, give this one a shot. It's pretty good. And do not read it without getting Rocannon's World and City of Illusions as well. They should be read together.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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