Tag Archives: genre

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

Cover art

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

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. ↩