Ursula LeGuin: Worlds of Exile and Illusion

September 10, 2015

9780312862114Although a long-standing science fiction fan, I’ve never really got on very well with fantasy. I was a little concerned when I started this volume, which is actually a re-publication of three of her shorter Hainish novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, as it rapidly became clear that there were elements that seemed fantastical… I’d read at least a couple of these many years ago, but had no clear memory of them. I’d read and enjoyed her Earthsea Trilogy very much, but never felt the urge or the need to go back to it, partly because of the magic and fantasy.

The fantasy elements are bearable, in the end, because they never take over the story: LeGuin is always more interested in and focused on the ideas: different human-type races and how they may have evolved over time on different worlds; contact between such races from different planets; the vastness of time and space itself, and the cruelty it inflicts on beings as they travel through space, conscious of the fact that they can never go back to the place they came from, as years, centuries will have elapsed and everyone they once knew will have died, and places will be very different. LeGuin is thinking, no, imagining  a universe where we might like to live but never will, she is conceiving some of the future potentialities of our species – if it survives – as well as confronting the thought that we may not be the first, or the only intelligent (?) species. It takes a powerful imagination, and one miles beyond swashbuckling sword and sorcery that has occasionally bored me to tears when I’ve picked it up by mistake. What is fantastical enriches and illustrates rather than becomes the purpose of the story.

So, an envoy alone on a world tracks down where a rebel base, which threatens the peace of the worlds, lies, and enables its destruction. But Rocannon’s World, and the hero’s story, is of his relations with the inhabitants of that world; though he achieves his goal, he loses the friends he leaves behind, living out his life and dying, apparently forgotten, on an alien world. Small details like this can be very moving, in LeGuin’s work.

In Planet of Exile, two different species learn with great difficulty how to co-exist and co-operate, faced with an implacable foe: LeGuin’s focus is on two individuals, one from each species, who form bonds that surpass each one’s fear of the other, and it’s only in the final novel, City of Illusions, set centuries later, that we learn that interbreeding between the species eventually developed.

The final novel is longer and much more complex, set on an Earth in the far future, dominated by an alien race which keeps its people in quiet but peaceful subjugation: civilisation and progress can be lost, move backwards as well as forwards. There is also the personal quest of the hero, and the losses that must be endured, the people, places and loves who must be left behind…

If you look back to my other posts on Ursula LeGuin’s novels and stories, I think you’ll see that it’s the breadth and scope of her imagination, her sensitivity to relationships between people, and her recognition of the great difficulties involved in creating real progress and real equality, as well as her questioning of our present world and way of life, which make her one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read.

 

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