Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion 3

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.

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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.

Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion 2 (Now With Fifty Percent Less Relevant Content)

(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

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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.

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

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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. ↩

Lavinia

Ursula K. Le Guin, Lavinia

Lavinia

I’ve been reading a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin this year. In a crazy time, her work feels very calm and sane.

Lavinia is one of her most recent books, and one of her best. I read some reviews after I finished it, and more than one reached a point where the reviewers, in their enthusiasm, were reduced to waving their arms vaguely and saying “this is just a really good book.” As Adam Roberts wrote in his Strange Horizons review, “We might ask, in what ways is this book so very good? But the temptation would be to reply: in all the ways.”

I’m not smarter than Adam Roberts, and I don’t have the Critic Mojo to attempt a close reading of Lavinia or reveal the technical secrets of its success. I’m just saying if you have any interest in the premise at all, you should read this book, and then moving on to some random thoughts (which will be a bit spoilery).

The Premise

Sometime around the third decade BCE, the poet Virgil wrote some pretty good Iliad fanfic. In the Aeneid, a Trojan named Aeneas travels to Italy and founds Rome by marrying the daughter of King Latinus, Lavinia, who has no dialogue and almost isn’t even in the poem.

Lavinia is Lavinia’s life story, told in first person.

Random Thoughts

This is an alternate take on the Aeneid narrated by someone Virgil treats as a plot token instead of a character. In this situation, you might expect a subversion of the original work, with a total bastard Aeneas and Lavinia justly angry with Virgil for ignoring her. That would be a worthwhile approach, but Le Guin is doing something else which to me seems less obvious.

Lavinia works with instead of against the Aeneid, expands it without contradicting it much.1 Lavinia’s role is the same, but she’s not something to be traded. She has some power and chooses her path. She actively works with her father to arrange the marriage to Aeneas, partly because she’s decided she likes the guy, but also because she’s politically savvy. She knows the alliance will be a good thing for Latium’s future because the author has already given away the plot.

Early in the novel Lavinia makes cross-time telepathic contact with Virgil, who’s dying on board a ship to Italy. They hit it off. Virgil is chagrined that he didn’t give Lavinia a bigger role (too late for rewrites), and gives her a heads up on what’s coming. From that point onward, Lavinia isn’t sure whether she’s a real person or a character in a myth. Being a practical sort, she doesn’t worry very much–her life feels the same either way. It’s implied that this is part of why she accepts and eagerly pursues the plot laid out for her: she sees herself as part of a story, and this is her role.2

Aeneas is the upstanding hero Virgil wanted us to see him as. It would be easy to do a subversive take on the guy: Virgil didn’t actually finish the Aeneid before he died, so it ends very suddenly with Aeneas killing his enemy Turnus as Turnus begs for mercy. This is not the most flattering image to go out on. It’s been a few years since I read the Aeneid, but I recall not being very impressed with the hero.3 But he’s easily rehabilitated, for the same reason he looks bad. All Le Guin has to do is carry the story on past the end of the poem. Aeneas, as it turns out, is disgusted with himself, and is a thoughtful ruler for the three years he has left.

Aeneas dies offstage, anticlimactically. The novel carries on past that, too. Where Lavinia parts company with the Aeneid, and the conventions of myths and heroic tales, is in its deliberate lack of climax. Usually the kind of story starring an Aeneas–whether it’s a myth, an epic poem, or a modern fantasy adventure–climaxes in a big damn fight. Lavinia is the story of Lavinia’s life, and like life it doesn’t have a neat climax; it goes on for a while, then gently winds down. Lavinia’s great triumph isn’t victory in battle, but guiding events to ensure that Rome will not be ruled by Aeneas’s incompetent heir Ascanius.

Ascanius grew up with war and believes he can only prove his manhood in battle. This is the kind of thing we associate with “primitive” societies like ancient Greece and Rome, but a lot of people–mostly men–still think this way. Not in the sense that they’re itching to sack Troy, of course, but a lot of men are less interested in being seen as wise, or good, than tough. Watch any amount of television, and pay attention to the ads; there’s a lot of money to be made in convincing men your product will prove they’re not wimps.

More to the point, we sometimes seem to want our leaders to be tough more than we want them to be capable administrators. In the absence of a real war, we metaphorically militarize some mundane problem, declaring war on drugs, on crime, or on poverty, as though we might make people less poor by stabbing something.

One of the best passages in Lavinia is Aeneas and Lavinia’s patient, subtle, not entirely successful attempt to calm Ascanius down. Their point is that if Ascanius thinks he can only prove his virtue by fighting, he’ll be more interested in fighting than anything. And how can a ruler preoccupied with glory be trusted to attend to economics, agriculture, legislation–the dull everyday details that are the real work of governing?

Leadership isn’t about glory and isn’t about winning. It’s mostly about responsibility, and thinking about others before yourself, and the boring daily grind of administration. Lavinia, working in the background of Aeneas’s epic poem, invisibly stage-managing the founding of Rome, might be in a better position to appreciate that than anyone.


  1. Lavinia’s hair is a different color. That’s pretty much it. ↩

  2. It’s tempting to relate this to Le Guin’s interest in Taoism; the Wikipedia page for Tao quotes The Way and its Power by Arthur Waley: “[Dao] means a road, path, way; and hence, the way in which one does something; method, doctrine, principle.” Is her role in the Aeneid her way, her path? Honestly, though, I know so little about Taoism that I’m probably way off base here. ↩

  3. Although Aeneas is nowhere near as big a bastard as Odysseus. Or Achilles, although in his case we were supposed to think he was a prick. ↩