City of Illusions by Le Guin, Ursula K., 1967

City of Illusions by Le Guin, Ursula K. - Book cover from

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

Rounding out the first three of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish novels, City of Illusions tells the story of the conquest that the first two volumes alluded to. It is the story of a man in a fallen society as he tries to come to terms with his past, and to understand the nature of Earth's current rulers, about whom virtually nothing is known, but rumors abound. As a wrap up novel to a loose trilogy it is fine book. It also stands well on its own. Four out of five stars.

Understanding City of Illusions is a bit hard at first, primarily because Le Guin includes the reader in the eponymous illusions, which are actually outright deceptions. It is the story of a man named Falk from the world of Werel. Werel was the setting for the second book in the trilogy called Planet of Exile. This third volume takes place thousands of years after Planet of Exile, after the Werelians have rediscovered FTL travel, but not the Ansible (a device that allows instantaneous communication over interstellar distances). Falk and a group from Werel were sent to Earth to reestablish contact with the mother-world, and to learn the status of the conflict with The Enemy. That mission ends in failure as Falk and his cohorts are captured, completely mind-wiped and set on the Earth in an animalistic state. Falk has the fortune to be discovered by a generous and friendly group of people and is nursed back to health and taught again how to speak, read and write. Falk lives a good life with his saviors, but sympathizes with their plight after learning that humans do not rule Earth; they are lorded over by the alien Shing, who stole knowledge and power from humanity, and have let civilization slip back to an Iron-Age technology. Soon after becoming a person again, Falk set out to journey to the city of Es Toch, the Shing capital. The man who has forgotten his life has set out to learn the stolen secrets of mankind. Remembering nothing of his old life or purpose, Falk wants to confront the Shing and devise a plan to defeat them so that human civilization may again rise on Earth. His journey is long and hard, but along the way he learns much. The Shing are powerful, they cannot be beaten, and almost all humans live in fear of them. They are probably liars, and hold humanity from the greatness achieved first by the Hain, then by the League of All Planets. They also appear to have the power to read minds, and can also lie to others while communicating mentally. Mind speech is all but a forgotten art among the Earthlings, yet strong a taboo remains against mind-lying, which itself is very difficult and was never mastered by humans anyway. But Falk also learns that the Shing hold life in the highest regard and teach that killing should only be done when necessary, and do not appear to have ever raised a hand or weapon against a man before.

Falk travels across a wilderness that obviously is North America, and finds the Shing city of Es Toch in the Rocky Mountains. Once he gets there the Shing tell him that he is Werelian, and that his ship was attacked by rebels who fear the Shing as it approached Earth. It was the rebels who mind-wiped him and his crew and set them all down on different parts of Earth. Falk, who becomes known by his Werelian name of Agad Ramarren, allows the Shing to reawaken his old memories with their machines. The cost of becoming Ramarren again is the loss of the Falk personality. Falk suspects that the Shing are alien, and want only to know the location of Werel so that they can conquer or destroy it, or maybe just convince it to leave them alone. But Falk is a Werelian, and because of the mental strength given them by the Cultural Embargo (a policy devised for cultural preservation of the observed that was put into place on Werel where the Earth colonists, the Farborn, prevented any of the indigenous human cultures from learning any of Earth's technological secrets), the Falk personality does not die, and Falk/Agad Ramarren become an interesting being that has two separate individuals in one brain which know each other and are capable of working together. He becomes a Werelian superman of sorts, who can also resist mental control, who can see through mind-lies, and who has an acute and powerful ability to harm others with mental blasts of his own.

I think that this book is worth reading, so I will not spoil it any more. I have said nothing about the journey to Es Toch, and little of Falk's time there, so there is still much to discover in this book. Like the other two books in this trilogy, City of Illusions is barely science fiction, and probably closer to fantasy. In fact, up until the last fifty pages it is probably pure fantasy, and even less SF than its predecessors. But whatever it really is, fantasy, SF, science-fantasy, or something else, itís excellently written and itís a compelling story. Le Guin at this point in her early career was really starting to stretch her legs as an author, and had demonstrable skills and a vivid imagination. The book wrapped up the Enemy plotline well enough, though in all the rest of the Hainish tales one never really finds out what happened to the Shing despite the fact that they certainly are not defeated here.

The themes and motifs that Le Guin deals with here are the same as in the earlier books, and she shows her prowess as an author by expertly changing and evolving them to fit the tone of the new book well. I suppose that the entire trilogy, at its heart, tells two stories: The story of the evolution of the mental powers of humans, which reaches its pinnacle with the Werelians, and the story of humanity's second known slide to a Dark Age, causes by the almost-certainly alien Shing. Le Guin also gives us an interesting culture to try to understand. But the third book also presents a deception as a major motif. The central belief of the Shing seems to be that having humans in numbers suitable to develop a high technology is very dangerous, but killing is anathema to them. To resolve the problems caused by these two pillars of belief the Shing have developed machines to aid them with their own mental powers, and use them to destroy the minds of people while leaving their bodies in tact and healthy. This mind-wipe technique is the major deception, though there are many others. To the Shing this must be an undesirable but workable solution to the problem, and although Le Guin leaves it up to the reader to really decide if this is morally correct, she does give both sides of the argument.

There are no humans that could do to me what the Shing did. I honor life, I honor it because it's a much more difficult and uncertain matter than death; and the most difficult and uncertain quality of all is intelligence. The Shing kept their law and le me live, but they killed my intelligence. Is that not murder? They killed the man I was, the child I had been. To play with a man's mind so, is that reverence? Their law is a lie, and their reverence is mockery.

Or is it really? Le Guin did not drop the last shoe until the very last pages of the book when the only Shing in sight was under the mental control of Falk, so she never gave the Shing a chance to state their side of the debate in a forum that was not tainted with the deception itself. But what other purpose could the Shing have had? Itís entirely possible that the Shing were a truly alien race, but even if they were just another mutated form of human from the original Hainish colonization efforts, Le Guin went to pains to say that the Shing could not mate with the Earthlings. They obviously were not there to plunder either. The Shing had a moral code that was not too far different than ours in many respects. I think that it is not incorrect to say that the Shing saw some potential in humanity that made husbanding us worth the extreme effort it probably became. But I think it also is not incorrect to say that while the Shing worried about their own self preservation, they also worried about other intelligent life and saw it as their duty to protect it. The Shing even uplifted (if I may borrow that term) many different species of animal on Earth, all of whom had the power of speech, and the power to beg for their lives and remind hunters of the law. While the Shing certainly let our culture die, we did not. The rest of the natural world also seemed to do pretty well under the Shing rule too.

Floating around in the background Le Guin also deals a bit with the effects of a totalitarian government that hides behind "democracy," and Daoism, though she never really tackled either issue head on. Like I said before, if you have not read the Hainish cycle before, you really will be amazed when you do. This book can be bought separately, or in one of two different omnibus editions.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

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


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