(This is part two of my bloviations about the early Ursula Le Guin novels collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion. I’ve been letting this sit for a while, but I’m determined to finish it before moving on to something else. Part one is here.)
Planet of Exile
Planet of Exile is the best of these three novels, and it’s no coincidence that it pushes the war plot furthest into the background. Instead it’s built around a premise that plays to Le Guin’s strengths: two cultures rubbing up against each other. The war has left a colony from the League of Worlds stranded and isolated on the barely medieval planet Werel. In this shared space, two separate cultural identities are maintained by pressure from both sides: the Leaguers seem foreign because the locals define them as foreign, and because they define themselves as foreign, and the definitions reinforce each other in a vicious circle. The tension reads not only as the fear of one culture being absorbed into another–the balance of power between the locals and the colonists seems about equal, so either culture could end up dominant–but also the fear of being the culture doing the absorbing. The anxieties that inspire colonialists, like the British in India or Viking colonists in Greenland, to rigidly separate themselves from the “natives” are the same as the anxieties that, back home, inspire prejudice against immigrants.
I felt distanced from Rocannon’s World. As fit a mock heroic fantasy, the characters seemed just a bit bigger than life, and proportionately shallow; and the prose tended towards a slightly elevated tone. Rocannon’s World is the kind of book where guys swoop into battle on flying cats. That can be cool, especially coming from someone like Le Guin who can actually write, but it’s not necessarily what I’m in the mood for when I pick up one of her books. Planet of Exile is more grounded. The characters act like people, not myths. The local king isn’t a dashing warrior–he’s a crotchety old man staving off dementia. A siege of the colony perpetrated by the local equivalent of Genghis Kahn and his horde isn’t a swashbuckling adventure–it’s chaos, struggle, short rations, and too-easy death.
Planet of Exile is not quite as deep as Le Guin’s best work–it’s a brisk adventure novel, basically. But it’s still very good. Better, in fact, than some better-remembered SF from the period, or even many recent novels and stories that SF fans have received with enthusiasm. Which is why I’m going to wander off on a tangent again.
Science Fiction, Fantasy, Metaphor, and Allegory
Planet of Exile is about emigration, expatriation, and holding on to cultural identity. The colony’s main challenge is that, after many generations on Werel, with the original colonists long dead and the League of Worlds distant and half-recalled history, neither the colonists nor the Werelians see the colonists as natives of Werel.
Someone whose mental image of science fiction was formed by the worst episodes of Star Trek might ask “So what’s Le Guin really writing about? Immigration?” Because, in popular media, that’s how science fiction and fantasy too often work. You have a guy whose face is black on one side and white on the other, and another guy with the same skin tones but on the opposite sides, and they hate each other. And that stands for Racism! You have a planet with guys called “Yangs” and “Khoms” trying to conquer each other. And that stands for the Cold War! Hack scriptwriters love this stuff. So does a fair chunk of the audience, sometimes. Another sizable chunk of the audience doesn’t, because… well, you shouldn’t be able to solve a story, y’know?
You don’t often see this kind of thing in realistic fiction. Well, okay, you do, but everyone immediately realizes it’s crap. Bring on the fantastika, though, and suddenly a lot of crap detectors get a lot less sensitive. A TV detective series featuring flat characters, stupid O. Henry plot twists, ten-ton-anvil morals, and slap-you-in-the-face messages would make it through maybe six episodes of plummeting ratings before getting cancelled. Make it a fantasy series, call it The Twilight Zone, and you’ll be hailed as a television genius.
I’m focusing on media SF because media SF gives lame allegory its biggest audience and greatest cultural influence, but you get low standards in written SF, too. Even people who love SF, even people who write SF, are not immune. Look at what just won a Nebula.
It might be easier to see how most fiction works–as a broad, much simplified generalization–by looking at something set in the real world. I’ll use Anna Karenina as an example so that I can segue into a Tolstoy quotation. A novel has two levels. (I did say “much simplified.” We’re talking grade-school level here. But that’s all I need for the purposes of this blog post.) Level One is the literal level, the specific story about a specific character, Anna. Level Two is the metaphorical level, the level of meaning, and it’s not specific. It’s a jumble of thoughts, issues, images, metaphors, and, well, stuff. It relates to the readers’ lives in any number of ways, and says many things, and can support any number of interpretations, some of them contradictory. Some interpretations may make more sense than others, some may be either particularly insightful or way off base, but none of them will be the One True Answer. As Tolstoy wrote, “If I wanted to express in words all that I meant to express by the novel, then I should have to write the same novel as I have written all over again.”
I’d argue that a book is great to the extent that it provides the reader with stuff. Not that Level One, the story-level, isn’t important–but it’s important because the story the framework that supports the book’s meaning, and if the story isn’t well crafted the meaning is likely to be distorted or dishonest. The problem with Twilight Zone-type stories is that Level One is a thin, unsatisfying veneer and Level Two is simple to the point of tedium. Once you’ve decoded the allegory, matched message (A) to plot (B), there’s nothing else to it.
This is, of course, how our least inspired high school English courses teach students to read novels: as a riddle, with a correct answer. (Write a two-page paper on Lord of the Flies. What is the Theme? List the Symbols.) As a culture, we tend to be a little suspicious of anything with no immediate and obvious utility, literature included. Start a conversation on school curricula, and someone at some point is bound to echo the old students’ refrain: “When are they going to use this stuff?” The great thing about the riddle theory of literature is that it offers an answer: fiction is useful for sending coded messages.
Some people grow up believing this is actually how fiction works. Some of those people even become writers. Mediocre media SF is particularly prone to feature on-the-nose allegories. Is it because the connection between the literal Level One story and the real world is less obvious? Because caring what happens to a fictional character is one thing, but caring about a fictional character in an imaginary world takes an extra mental leap? Maybe allegory is a comfortable mode for writers who just want to know what all this crazy fantasy stuff is for. But fantastic fiction ought to work like any other kind, for all that SF and fantasy stories don’t deal with the real world on their literal levels.
Planet of Exile’s colonists aren’t immigrants. It’s a little closer to the mark to call them refugees, but that’s not really accurate, either–the power relationships between the locals and the colonists are all wrong. They aren’t colonialists or imperialists because they aren’t trying to dominate Werel–they’ve even discarded much of their technology to keep the locals on an even footing. Planet of Exile isn’t definitely about any of those things, but… let’s say it relates to any of them. Reading it might inspire thoughts about any of them, or all of them, or completely unrelated subjects. (Or nothing in particular–if some readers just care about Level One, I won’t argue with them.) It’s all good. Novels aren’t about sending Messages, but generating multiple readings, unique and personal to particular readers.
I love science fiction, I love fantasy, but part of loving a genre is wanting to see it at its best. Look at Le Guin’s early, minor, most conventionally adventure-style novels and it’s obvious how much even the least ambitious end of these genres could raise their games.