Marcie/Buried in Print and I have been discussing off and on doing another read-along, and one of Marcie’s suggestions was le Guin’s Hainish cycle, which has a consistent SF universe, but a number of discrete stories.
The cycle consists of – in order of the period of their setting:
The Dispossessed (1974)
The Word for World is Forest (1972)
Rocannon’s World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusions (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) Short story collection
The underlying story is that humans originated on Hain. That the Hainish, a peaceful race, occupied many planets, including Earth, sometimes with variants on humans who had been genetically engineered. They invented instantaneous communication, using a device called the ‘ansible’ (which name has been taken up by many SF writers since) and faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but only for objects, not for themselves. Inter-system travel for humans is possible at near the speed of light, which means that while travel may appear near instantaneous for the travellers, objectively years, and quite often centuries, have passed.
Over the (vast) period of these books, the Hainish civilization rises, as the League of All Worlds, falls back, and rises again as the Ekumen.
I’m sure those para.s above are indicative of why so many of you pass when it comes to SF, because it all seems so contrived, unnecessary and difficult to follow. For geeks like me these made up worlds allow the exploration and restatement of every day problems in new settings; and yes they provide a deal of escapism.
The importance of Ursula le Guin is that she was a major writer who chose to write within the SF genre; whose character development was unique in SF and fascinating in any context; and that she explores gender issues, ecology and cooperative systems of government in ways and to depths that are unique in any genre.
I have previously reviewed The Dispossessed, but was not meaning to preempt a possible read-along when City of Illusions fell to hand (I was actually looking for Gaskell’s Ruth to do a long promised review, but it’s in hiding – a common occurrence when I move books so that they will be closer when I need them). I’ll go ahead with this one now and in a year or two no doubt, Marcie and I and anyone else who wishes to join in will knock off the rest. In fact, just a few hours before I posted this, Lou (Louloureads) posted a review of The Word for World is Forest.
‘My’ copy, with the cover above, cheaply bound, pages yellowing with age, is inscribed to Milly, Mothers Day 1984 – a recent work from our favourite author, as I was just starting a new job after a period out of work, and we were living in a rental in Blackburn (Melbourne), with three children under seven, while we looked for a house to buy, which we did shortly after.
The period of this book, it becomes clear, is two thousand years in our future. The League of all Worlds has been attacked and has pulled back. Earth is ruled by a human-looking race called the Shing from the city of Es Toch – a wonderfully imagined city of transparent buildings which appears to have been constructed over the Grand Canyon. The people of Continent One (North America of course) are few, isolated into small communities and are living primitively, though with some remnants of their earlier civilization, in particular laser guns which don’t appear to need recharging.
“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 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.”
The story commences in the vast Eastern Forest. A man with strange yellow eyes, intelligent, but entirely without memories emerges into a clearing. The community there, the house of Zove, even with their rudimentary telepathy, cannot know if the man is an idiot, or a Shing pretending amnesia, or a tool of the Shing, or a victim, a man whose brain has been wiped. But they take him in, give him a name, Falk, teach him, he becomes the partner of the teenage daughter of the house.
Falk and Zove determine that Falk must go on, alone, that his arrival at Zove’s house was but the first part in a long journey, and so Falk sets out, walking, to cross the continent to Es Toch.
This then, or at least the middle part of the novel, is the story of a long pilgrimage, as was Le Guin’s following, better known, work, The Left Hand of Darkness. In that, Le Guin used the shared ordeal to interrogate notions of gender. Here, the ordeal is not always shared, though it is at the end, and what Le Guin is exploring is Truth and Lies. What can be believed? Falk decides early on that he must take the stance of always telling the truth, that only then will he have a basis for detecting the deceits of others.
Falk finally comes to the edge of the Eastern Forest on the banks of the Great River, crosses over to the Prairies, gains a companion, walks and walks, together they cross into the mountains, and so he comes to Es Toch.
There he discovers that the Shing can Mindlie – lie telepathically – and he must work his way through that. Yes, this is in part an adventure novel, and is only in small parts concerned with relationships. All the author’s focus is on Falk and how he deals with, how he thinks through, the problems he must confront. We do not end with a great victory, just another step forward in a long journey.
I can’t at this late stage in your reading lives persuade you to began reading le Guin, but I love her, her work, her insights, her stories, and I was very glad to be back here, in this small corner of her universe, after an absence of nearly 40 years.
Ursula K le Guin, City of Illusions, Ace Science Fiction Books, New York, 1976. 217pp.
The Dispossessed (theaustralianlegend)
The Word for World is Forest (Louloureads)