The OF Blog: Ursula Le Guin, Worlds of Exile and Illusion

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ursula Le Guin, Worlds of Exile and Illusion

How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away? - planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

In trying to tell the story of a man, an ordinary League scientist, who went to such a nameless half-known world not many years ago, one feels like an archeologist amid millennial ruins, now struggling through choked tangles of leaf, flower, branch and vine to the sudden bright geometry of a wheel or a polished cornerstone, and now entering some commonplace, sunlit doorway to find inside it the darkness, the impossible flicker of a flame, the glitter of a jewel, the half-glimpsed movement of a woman's arm.

How can you tell fact from legend, truth from truth? (p. 3)
This opening sequence to Rocannon's World, the first of Le Guin's Hainish Cycle novels, reveals quite a bit of the spirit to be found in reading this 1966 novel and its two succeeding novels, Planet of Exile (1966) and City of Illusions (1967). Le Guin, unlike the "Golden Age" SF writers, is much more interested in the social aspects of human life and in her SF and fantasy novels many of the themes that she so explicitly states in the quoted passage are explored at great length.

As the first of her Hainish Cycle novels, Rocannon's World sets up so much of the history behind things such as the Ekumen and the FTL communications device called the ansible, that the story itself is as much of a historical artifact in feel as are the subjects that Rocannon, an envoy of the Ekumen, has devoted his life to studying.

Now unlike my previous examinations of Gene Wolfe's fiction, my reflections here will be minimal, as I want to highlight certain aspects of Le Guin's stories so those who haven't tried her works might become curious, so please excuse me if I do little else but to highlight certain passages that will serve as showcases for her ideas and intentions here. The one I am about to quote says so much about Rocannon's role as an observer that those who want more than just a wham-bam! action sequence might be warned that Le Guin is much more interested in how we relate to peoples and cultures that are dissimilar and yet sometimes akin to our own cultural world-views.

By evening of the second day Rocannon was stiff and wind-burned, but had learned to sit easy in the high saddle and to guide with some skill the great flying beast from Hallan stables. Now the pink air of the long, slow sunset stretched above and beneath him, levels of rose-crystal light. The windsteeds were flying high to stay as long as they could in sunlight, for like great cats they loved warmth. Mogien on his black hunter - a stallion, would you call it, Rocannon wondered, or a tom? - was looking down, seeking a camping place, for windsteeds would not fly in darkness. Two midmen soared behind on smaller white mounts, pink-winged in the after-glow of the great sun Fomalhaut. (p. 28).
Note that Rocannon does not give any value judgments regarding these animals and their riders; he observes. Le Guin's background was in social anthropology (in fact, her father was the first to receive the Ph.D. in Anthropology in the United States, back in 1901) and much of the plot and tension in Rocannon's World revolves around a sort of a xenoarchaeology, as this nameless, somewhat "primitive" (ever a loaded word in anthropological circles these days) world serves as a great case study not just of how such a culture evolved, but also for how an outside agency, the Ekumen, has sworn not to interfere but only to observe. One may raise the question here of the possibility of post-colonial movements in Africa and Asia during the 1950s and 1960s might have influenced Le Guin's take on the matter. I suspect strongly (based on prior reading of latter Hainish Cycle novels) that there is something to this, but I shall leave it up to the reader.

In the second book, Planet of Exile, we are introduced to two humanoid species living on the planet Werel/Alterra, one of them from Earth itself, living in a sort of uneasy truce. The two apparent offspring of the ancient people of Hain, but the Alterrans may have been genetically modified, since at first interbreeding with Earth-descended humans is not possible. But on a planet that takes 60 years to revolve around its giant sun, the seasons are according long and winter is fast approaching. What happens in such a situation when two mostly-separated groups who do not easily comprehend each other are forced to come together in order to survive the years' long winter?

In this tale, Le Guin elaborates more upon the principles that underlie the Ekumen, or the League of All Worlds:

"Six hundred home-years is ten Years here." After a moment Seiko Esmit went on, "You see, we don't know all about the erkars and many other things that used to belong to our people, because when our ancestors came here they were sworn to obey a law from the League, which forbade them to use many things different from the things the native people used. This was called Cultural Embargo. In time we would have taught you how to make things - like wheeled carts. But the Ship left. There were few of us here, and no word from the League, and we found many enemies among your nations in those days. It was hard for us to keep the Law and also to keep what we had and knew. So perhaps we lost much skill and knowledge. We don't know."

"It was a strange law," Rolery murmured.

"It was made for your sakes - not ours," Seiko said in her hurried voice, in the hard distinct farborn accent like Agat's. "In the Canons of the League, which we study as children, it is written: No Religion or Congruence shall be disseminated, no technique or theory shall be taught, no cultural set or pattern shall be exported, nor shall paraverbal speech be used with any non-Communicant high-intelligence life-form, or any Colonial Planet, until it be judged by the Area Council with the consent of the Plenum that such a planet be ready for Control or for Membership...It means, you see, that we were to live exactly as you live. In so far as we do not, we have broken our own Law."

"It did us no harm," Rolery said. "And you not much good." (pp. 167-168)
In the final book in this omnibus collection, City of Illusions, the people of Werel again are mentioned, but this time it is over a thousand years after the history detailed in Planet of Exile. Earth has been captured by a mysterious alien race called the Shing, who are able to "mind lie," or to create illusions that ensnare people in its insidious web. The main character of this novel, "Falk," is a man stripped of his memories, with alien eyes. It is a mystery as to where he came from and the what/who aspects of his being, a mystery that Le Guin uses as a touchstone for exploring issues such as control/freedom, patriarchal societies and their weaknesses, the application of Taoist philosophy to matters of social governance, and so forth. Of the three novels, it is City of Illusions that is given more space (a shade over 150 pages, compared to the 100-110 pages of the first two books) to develop its ideas and in hindsight, it presages the themes that are later explored in The Left Hand of Darkness. The passage quoted below illustrates quite nicely the dichotomy between the League and the Shing:

"We hide from the Shing. Also we hide from what we were. Do you see that, Falk? We live well in the houses - well enough. But we are ruled utterly by fear. There was a time we sailed in ships between the stars, and now we dare not go a hundred miles from home. We keep a little knowledge, and do nothing with it. But once we used that knowledge to weave the pattern of life like a tapestry across night and chaos. We enlarged the chances of life. We did man's work."

After another silence Zove went on, looking up into the bright November sky: "Consider the worlds, the various men and beasts on them, the constellations of their skies, the cities they built, their songs and ways. All that is lost, lost to us, as utterly as your childhood is lost to you. What do we really know of the time of our greatness? A few names of worlds and heroes, a ragtag of facts we've tried to patch into a history. The Shing law forbids killing, but they killed knowledge, they burned books, and what may be worse, they falsified what was left. They slipped in the Lie, as always. We aren't sure of anything concerning the Age of the League; how many of the documents were forged? You must remember, you see, wherein the Shing are our Enemy. It's easy enough to live one's whole life without ever seeing one of them - knowingly; at most one hears an aircar passing by far away. Here in the forest they let us be, and it may be the same now all over the Earth, though we don't know. They let us be so long as we stay here, in the cage of our ignorance and the wilderness, bowing when they pass by above our heads. But they don't trust us. How could they, even after twelve hundred years? There is no trust in them, because there is no truth in them. They honor no compact, break any promise, perjure, betray, and lie inexhaustibly; and certain records from the time of the Fall of the League hint that they could mind-lie. It was the Lie that defeated all the races of the League and left us subject to the Shing. Remember that, Falk. never believe the truth of anything the Enemy has said." (p. 228)

In those two paragraphs, so much of Le Guin's themes are condensed into a concisely written and provocative analysis of the Enemy's position that one might be tempted to take those points and apply them to our own lives and what we see presented before us each and every night a news program is on. If one of the key attractions of "soft" SF is its willingness to turn the mirror towards us to reflect our present realities rather than our ambitions, then Le Guin's early SF works well in that regards. I cannot recommend highly enough that people try her work and this omnibus is a very good place to start.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for highlighting these books. They are among my favorites. I received them (along with the Left Hand of Darkness) as a little box set back in the '70s and have read them many times over the years.

Excellent books.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Glad to know you like her to Dylan. She is a very good writer and is always willing to deal with things others don't. Her short stories are also very well done. In one she deals with the idea that we can live earth behind for a "clean" space station and the hatred of nature that implies. She is one of my favorite sci-fi writers. I was truly distressed when the sci-fi channel destroyed her works.

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