Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Part One)

Worlds of Exile and Illusion collects Ursula K. Le Guin’s first three novels. By current standards, they’re short books–the first two were published as Ace Doubles, backed with books by Avram Davidson and Thomas M. Disch. They’re minor Le Guin, but minor Le Guin is still better than much of the science fiction being published at any given time.1

These books have also been collected under the title Three Hainish Novels. The Hainish universe is where most of Le Guin’s science fiction novels take place. Here’s the backstory: all known intelligent life forms, us included,2 are the descendants of colonists from the planet Hain. Everybody in this universe is some kind of human–some, like the Gethenians or Athsheans, are very different kinds, but they’re still relatives, if distant relatives. This is, as much as anything, a metaphor: the Hainish universe is no place for the kind of unbridgeable mutual incomprehension you get in, say, Starship Troopers.

Ages later, the human races (or Hainish races, if you want to get technical) are discovering space flight and rediscovering each other. Devices called ansibles allow instant communication between any two points in the universe. The Ekumen, or League of Worlds, coordinates cultural contact and exchanges of information between worlds. This happens mostly via ansible because information can travel faster than light, but living beings can’t. Near light speed time dilation applies. A journey of a dozen light years will take a few hours for the passengers, but more than a dozen years from the point of view of the outside universe. Representing the Ekumen as an envoy to a new world means taking a one-way trip: by the time you get home, if you ever do, everything you know will be gone.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions take place on the fringes of a war between the League of Worlds and a mysterious, hostile culture called the Shing, who by the third novel have conquered the Earth. Le Guin’s starting point for these books was the unthoughtful pulp space opera favored by Doc Smith and Edmund Hamilton, which doesn’t sit comfortably with her later work. These novels work best when Le Guin pulls away from the space war narrative.

Rocannon’s World

Cover art

Before fantasy took off as a marketing category, one way to sell a fantasy novel was to laminate it with a thin veneer of science fiction. That fantasy world? Another planet. Those fabulous creatures? Aliens. Magic? Invoke Clarke’s Third Law,3 or “psionics,” which in the science fiction genre are pretty much magic with laboratory cred.

That’s the kind of book Rocannon’s World is: a hundred-page condensed epic fantasy quest. In a couple of ways it’s uncharacteristic of Le Guin’s work. First, one important element of Le Guin’s work is the theme of different cultures making contact and coming to an understanding. It’s the primary plot of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Telling, both novels about Ekumen envoys on recently contacted worlds, and a major part of The Disposessed and The Other Wind. And this is exactly the part of the story that Rocannon’s World skips! Rocannon decides to visit Fomalhaut II in “Semley’s Necklace”; by the first chapter he’s been there for months and is already close friends with the local lord. Second, in one sequence where Rocannon and his allies are captured, taken to a deserted city, and nearly eaten by a band of uncommunicative winged humanoids. It reads like Le Guin’s take on The Thing From Another World, and it’s bizarrely out of place in a universe otherwise free of bug-eyed monsters.

I may come back to those points later when I write about City of Illusions (in a second post, since this one is getting large and as usual I’m writing at a snail’s pace). For now, the point is that Rocannon’s World, as a whole, is not the most remarkable or characteristic thing in Le Guin’s bibliography. Which is why I’m about to spend the bulk of this review talking about the prologue.

Rocannon’s World grew from Le Guin’s short story “Semley’s Necklace,” which became its prologue.4 “Semley’s Necklace” is a story about a woman who enters fairyland for a night to retrieve a family treasure stolen by dwarves, only to find on her return that a generation has passed, her husband is dead, and her daughter is a stranger. It’s a classic fairy tale plot, with the small differences that Semley is from Fomalhaut II, the dwarves are aliens, and traveling to fairyland means flying a spaceship to a museum on another planet.

What makes “Semley’s Necklace” different from a straightforward “yes, but my telepathic dragons are aliens” story is that Le Guin switches styles when she switches planets. The Fomahaut sections are lyrical, and just slightly flavored with the rhythms of oral storytelling. For the museum scenes Le Guin switches to the prosaic, straightforward third person favored by pre-new-wave SF. The implied narrator of Semley’s story is a high fantasy writer, or maybe a folklorist with literary aspirations. Rocannon’s narrator is writing for Astounding Science Fiction.

A vocal minority of hard SF fans are snobs about fantasy. They grumble when a fantasy novel wins a Hugo award. They complain when bookstores file the fantasy and SF together. There was a time when I myself thought I hated fantasy. My excuse is that I was twelve. Even then, though, the “Oh sweet Jeebus there’s chocolate in my peanut butter” attitude didn’t make much sense to me. Where was the hard and fast line between these genres? Don’t they sort of blend into each other? Science fiction stories present themselves as extrapolations of reality, but in practice total impossibilities–telepathy, faster-than-light travel–are acceptable as long as they behave like real-life physical phenomena, working according to definite, predictable rules. Many fantasy worlds are built on similar rigorously worked-out rules (the Lord Darcy stories), or include nothing supernatural at all (the Gormenghast books). Any hard-and-fast definition of either science fiction or fantasy will leave out some edge cases.

It’s clear from “Semley’s Necklace” that whether a story is SF or fantasy partly depends on point of view: how much the narrator, the characters, and by extension the readers understand about the world of the story. Take time dilation. According to the laws of relativity, as an Ekumen ship approaches light speed, time slows down for anyone on board. From Semley’s perspective, she travels for a few hours, stops briefly to pick up her necklace, turns right around and returns home the next morning to find that sixteen years have passed in one night.

Which is also what happens to people who visit other worlds in fairy tales. The difference is that for the hapless denizens of fairyland, as for Semley, this time shift is frightening and inexplicable. For Rocannon, “time slows as you approach light speed” is a fact as unremarkable as “running out of gas makes the car stop working” or “food gets hot in the microwave.” From his point of view the interesting and mysterious thing isn’t that Semley has skipped sixteen years, but that she’s travelled eight light years just to retrieve a necklace. So maybe whether we read a story as science fiction or fantasy depends partly on what the protagonists find wondrous, mysterious, and strange–on the story’s own attitude towards its fantastic elements. The more the non-realist material is treated as a normal, well-understood part of the world, the more the story feels like science fiction.

  1. Their companion novels are pretty much the same deal–Avram Davidson and Thomas Disch were major writers, but these particular books (The Kar-Chee Reign and Mankind Under the Leash) are so obscure I’d never heard of them until I researched this review. ↩

  2. You might object that this doesn’t jibe with the fossil record, but SF writers are allowed that kind of thing when setting up their premises. No one objects to FTL travel, and that’s also technically absurd. ↩

  3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ↩

  4. “Semley’s Necklace” is also collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. It reads a bit oddly when divorced from its novel: the first paragraph claims it’s a story about Rocannon, but on its own it’s clearly about Semley. ↩

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