I started this third post on Worlds of Exile and Illusion a month ago, but it’s been half-finished a while–I’m only just starting to feel focused enough during my free time to write again. (Here are parts one and two, posted some time ago. It feels kind of odd to have taken so long on this review; it makes it seem as though I found this book more significant than I actually did. In fact, it’s just the thing I happened to be reviewing at the moment I acquired a case of blogger’s block.) Critically speaking, my verdict on City of Illusions was similar to my feelings on Rocannon’s World: Better than most SF adventure novels, not as good as Le Guin’s later work.
What it’s About
A thousand or so years after being conquered by aliens called the Shing, Earth is sparsely populated, its small, isolated human communities separated by miles of wilderness. An amnesiac offworlder named Falk sets off from the east coast of North America to find the Shing’s colony, a city called Es Toch.
City of Illusions is twice the length of the other two books–it was published on its own–and is maybe a bit overlong. After Planet of Exile, it feels like a step backwards. Planet read like Le Guin finding her voice. City, like Rocannon’s World, reads like Le Guin is still searching for it, experimenting with common SF tropes. Both are pretty standard quest narratives, Rocannon in a fantasy kingdom and City in a post-apocalypse. The part that seemed most characteristic of Le Guin was the middle of the novel, in which Falk travels through a series of distinct little cultures. (It’s also notable that Falk carries a copy of the Tao Te Ching, a major influence on Le Guin’s work.)
What’s less characteristic of Le Guin is the Shing. They’re evil alien tyrants, basically. We’re told they broke the League of Worlds, conquered the Earth, and destroyed or suppressed most of humanity’s knowledge, technology, and culture. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from aliens in this kind of story. They’re Evil! The hero must stop them!
The Shing, when Falk finally meets them, tell a different story: there never was an enemy. The League self-destructed from its own paranoia. Earth is stagnant not because the human race is being kept down, but because, through fear and fragmentation, it’s keeping itself down. The Shing themselves are just another community of humans. All of which is entirely possible, because in the last two books we didn’t actually see much of the big war. It’s never clear to Rocannon who attacked him, and Planet of Exile isn’t about the war so much as something that happened centuries later because of the war. I had sort of expected that City of Illusions would have a twist ending, and that this would be it–at least superficially, the idea that humanity itself, and not an external alien threat, is its own worst enemy would have been in keeping with the worldview of Le Guin’s Ekumen books.
The real twist is that there is no twist: the Shing are exactly the conquerors they’re said to be, and the book ends with Falk, his memory restored, heading back to Werel to spread the news of the threat. Which I guess is a surprise, more so than the twist would have been. But it’s surprising because it feels wrong.
Way, waaaaay back in part one of this review, I mentioned Le Guin’s decision to give all the people of her universe a common ancestry, and the thematic consequences:
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.
I also mentioned the resulting out-of-placeness of the incident in Rocannon’s World where Rocannon and company are accosted by carnivorous bug-eyed monsters. And the Shing, again, are out of place in a way that sort of warps the story. You can see the warpage in the treatment of “mindspeech,” the Ekumen universe’s word for telepathy. This is the thing Rocannon is looking to learn in Rocannon’s World, and as a weapon it’s a little crappy. Yeah, the ability to read minds sounds like the ultimate intelligence source, but it’s hard to make war on people when you feel everything that happens to them. Also, it turns out that in mindspeech it’s impossible to lie. The Shing change the rules: they learn to “mindlie,” and suddenly telepathy is a weapon again. They seem to have punched their way in from a slightly less complex universe and turned everything around them to cardboard. Of the later Ekumen novels, only The Word for World is Forest has a more simplistic moral landscape, and at least there we were encouraged to side not with the Earthmen but the Other.
The end of City of Illusions reads like a cliffhanger, but Le Guin never returned to this storyline–her next Ekumen book was The Left Hand of Darkness, which mentions the war period as something that happened a long time ago, and isn’t it nice that it’s over? And because the vestiges of traditional Doc Smith space opera were a dead weight dragging Le Guin’s early trilogy away from the direction it needed to go, I have to agree: I’m very glad Le Guin ditched this plot.
And I’m glad there was no internet at the time, because if there were I’m sure someone would have been very aggrieved about it on LiveJournal. The idea of continuity probably looms larger in fan consciousness today, in an SF media landscape dominated by serial fiction, shared worlds, and transmedia storytelling, than it did in the sixties. By media-fan standards, the continuity in the Ekumen series isn’t the strongest. It doesn’t need to be: these books are in no way chapters in one big story. What I found surprising was the discontinuity in tone. Fictional universes have conceptual, philosophical underpinnings the way the real world has laws of physics. If these early novels of Le Guin’s feel to me like they exist in a slightly different universe from The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s less because of any forgotten wars than the simple fact that they’re borrowing more from the stock conventions of mid-twentieth-century space opera.