Worlds of Exile and Illusion by Le Guin, Ursula K., 1978

Worlds of Exile and Illusion by Le Guin, Ursula K. - Book cover from

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I have actually given you here a complete review of all three books, and not just plot summaries. There actually are the three full reviews that can be found elsewhere on my site, but since the omnibus edition has its own title, I thought it would be a good idea to put up its own independent review, in case someone surfs in and searches that title. These reviews are complete, but there is probably one other meta-issue worth discussing in this omnibus issue. Le Guin is a master of anthropological SF, but there is one aspect of her use of that theme that I personally found pretty convincing in this trilogy, and that is how Le Guin morphs the utility and the actual use of different technologies in her books. I think it’s safe to say that Le Guin used mental powers (mind-read, mind-speak, mind-lie, mind-wipe, etc) as a type of technology. Instead of presenting it as an ability that only a few special people were born with, Le Guin here presents it as a skill that can be learned, taught and passed down. In this trilogy it is the one technology that really turns tides time and time again. In Rocannon's World Rocannon not only learned how to use it and save Rokanon from The Enemy, but taught it to the rest of mankind. By the time that Planet of Exile starts, Earth's forgotten colony on Werel still has use of this technology, and though they don't use it as an ultimate weapon against the barbarian hoards from the north, it does give them a leg up against the other human species on Werel. However, in City of Illusions Le Guin has again given a believable advance in the technology that saves humanity and allows Falk to escape from the enemy Shing and ultimately, it would appear, save the rest of the Hainish worlds from barbarism and conquest. And I think that it is her use of this technology that perhaps is the most identifiable aspect of the story. In other words, we understand as members of a post World War II, post Cold War society how important it is to devise new technologies, but how much more important it is to continue to develop them in order to maintain a critical edge over the competition. That in essence is what Le Guin did here: She gave the Werelians a leg-up against the Shing by evolving their mental strength though operation of the Cultural Embargo in Werel. A cultural advancement beat out a technological one here, and that I think makes the anthropological themes stand front and center here.

Rocannon's World, (1966): 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 Planets has arisen and rediscovered interstellar flight. The League makes it its business to make contact with former Hainish worlds. So much time has gone by since the Hainish era that the people of each planet have 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 find them. At the time of this book the League has discovered a dozen or so worlds.

On this particular planet there are several races of men, which is unusual. There are 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 have possession of a spacecraft that is capable of relativistic flight. There is also the Fiia species, who are closely related to the Gdemiar, but who are semi-nomadic and reclusive. They use a type of telepathy to communicate. Also on this planet, which is unnamed, are the Liuar, who have two castes. The Olgiyor, or “midmen,” are servile, and are indicated by dark hair and light skin. The Angyar, or “lords,” have the opposite appearance and are 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 empty 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 a 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 swears off war and becomes a king, and apparently rules 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.

Planet of Exile, (1966): 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 it’s 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, I’m 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.

City of Illusion, (1967): 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 reconcile 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, it’s excellently written and it’s 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? It’s 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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