Ursula K. Le Guin – Worlds of Exile and Illusion (1966-67) Review

Comprising:

  • Rocannon’s World (1966)
  • Planet of Exile (1966)
  • City of Illusions (1967)

The three short novels contained within this collection are Le Guin’s first three published novels. Her brief warmup, you could say, before she really won fame with novels such as A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). These three early novels are standing in the shadows of her later achievements. Let’s see if that brilliance of her later work was already present from the start, and whether these three novels should be better known than they are now.

Rocannon’s World (1966)

Science fiction meets mythology in this tale of a far-flung, half-known world, where a couple of intelligent humanoid species live in feudal societies, and where advanced space-farers visit the world sometimes. The main character is an ethnographer from an advanced culture, whose journey will play a role in the legends of the more primitive locals. Le Guin’s writing is already very clean and dense, with a beautiful, dreamlike quality to it. A perfect style for a story that feels like a fairy tale sometimes. There are hints of themes that she would tackle more forcefully in later books, such as the juxtaposition of the cold, harsh world of technology and the gentler interest in culture, myth and the diversity of minds. There are hints that the little, primitive people have deeper knowledge of reality in some ways. Much of it feels like a predecessor of The Word for World is Forest (1972). The story lacks some tension but the alien cultures she created are interesting. It’s worth a read. 7.5/10

Planet of Exile (1966)

Again, advanced human settlers are stranded on a planet and are forced to cooperate with the more primitive tribal native species, but written in a more realistic mode than Rocannon’s World and does not evoke that fairy tale logic. The story explores the effects of bigotry from both sides, from the settlers who look down on the primitive ways of the natives and of those natives’ disregard of the settlers as true people. There is a subversion here of the Pocahontas story, namely that the advanced settlers are abandoned by their own people and now depend on the natives, which allows Le Guin to make the point that we should treat every one’s worldview with respect. And the message goes both ways – the natives also need the settlers and their knowledge – which I appreciated because it lifts the story above a bland morality tale about Noble Savages and such. The huge gap in scientific knowledge between the two peoples is a source of huge friction.

It’s an interesting little story. It has the tension of siege and conflict, a love story spanning peoples (as I said, Pocahontas) with an interesting female character, three main character POVs, and it toys with ideas of telepathy and with decades-long seasons as George RR Martin would redo in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I am especially impressed with the POV characters of the tribal natives as Le Guin really constructs a world view for them that is far removed from ours but feel solid. 8/10

City of Illusions (1967)

The best novel in the collection and one that still doesn’t quite reach the quality of the more famous novels of Le Guin’s career, but comes close. This is a story about a man in search of the truth of his past; and more generally about how difficult it is to discern truth from lie and how language can be a dangerous tool to wield, either in service of truth or of oppression. 

The story follows Falk, a humanoid alien, who arrives on planet Earth a few thousand years in the future, with amnesia. He doesn’t know where he came from or why he ended up on Earth. Humanity at this time is in some post-apocalyptic state after an alien invasion by the belligerent Shing, who subjugated all humans and destroyed the knowledge of their past. Although Falk is not of Earth, his situation of amnesia is therefore the same as humanity’s. In a low-tech world of small communities and extensive wild lands, humans live huddled together while the alien conquerors fly overhead in air-cars and have messed with the genetics of humans and animals both. Talking animals roam the lands. Have the Shing messed with Falk’s memory? Falk undertakes a perilous journey on foot through what was once America, to a city of the Shing to find out the truth from the lying, shifty-eyed aliens.

The journey occupies half of the novel. Matters of trust, lies and truth come up every time Falk meets some new people. Sometimes he hides his plans, other times he is determined to speak only the truth, but it depends on how others treat him, whether they honour truth or whether it is dangerous for him. Le Guin plays a remarkable game in the novel of claims and counterclaims, misunderstandings and deceptions, many of them well set up earlier in the story.

Her story shows the power of language, and how language shapes our common myths that underlie our societies. To undermine that all is setting a people adrift, and on a personal level the Lie is humiliating and insidious. At the time of writing, Le Guin may have wanted to say something about Cold War propaganda, but there is plenty of fake news and propaganda in our world today as well. An important point she makes is that it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, you will be fooled at least some of the time. And when you cannot trust anything anyone says, that really throws you back into yourself, and the only thing left to do is decide how you want to comport yourself. 8/10

Final thoughts

Each book was better than the last, and the first one was pretty good already. That matches pretty well with my expectation of Le Guin warming up her writing skills. Her recognisable style and topics of interest are also very visible from the start; notably her interest in anthropology and the conflicts between cultures. All of these stories are about visitors from one culture to another and the clashes between different worldviews. Her writing is dense and elegant, and even though the stories are short, they have a lot to say. I found that it was best not to read them back to back but to give yourself a break and then to return at a later date to re-experience again with each novel what Le Guin has to offer as a writer.

Her stories all feel as if they have one foot in future and one in the distant past. She constructs locations, worlds, for her stories that are full of wilderness. Many of her characters undertake long journeys overland, in which she adds copious details on the landscapes and beasts and the hunting of them. It all feels incredibly real, but also as if we’re reading a story of primitive peoples with clear, constrained systems of wisdom for their ways of living. Le Guin doesn’t present these ways of living as wiser or better than those of technologically advanced civilisations, but the conflicts in her stories are about peoples who have lost their roots. Peoples who have been set adrift from the past. Le Guin definitely brings something unique to the genre of science fiction and this collection gives a sharper impression of where her interests lie and how her stories stick out above those of many other writers.

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7 Responses to Ursula K. Le Guin – Worlds of Exile and Illusion (1966-67) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Do you think you’ll do a read through of her entire bibliography at some point? Or just read helter skelter?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ola G says:

    I was always wary of approaching Le Guin’s early stuff. I feel like she comes back time and again to the same topics, and doesn’t always have much to add to what she’s already said in her great books. But it’s good that these were solid reads, and short! I might give them a try one day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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