Review by C.J. Bunce
Is it possible Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novels were her greatest works of fantasy and science fiction? The author, one of both genre’s greatest contributors, revisited the “Hainish” world she created multiple times over the course of her 60 years as an American novelist The scope of these stories is grand and her writing style immediate and urgent. Is this a world of our own future, or of a future combined with other worlds? She keeps the possibilities open, something like Planet of the Apes. In three novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions–published from 1966 to 1967 in lengths that likely would be considered novellas today–she exhibits a deep understanding of all the important components of culture, while digging mercilessly into what traits best define mankind across time. The trilogy, re-issued with a new foreword as part of MacMillan Publishing’s Tor Essentials library under the title Worlds of Exile and Illusion, is now available here at Amazon. What does it take to be able to present brilliant fantasy and science fiction in a single vision?
Readers can approach these stories from different angles. Is Rocannon’s World more science fiction or fantasy? If you were to strip out all the science fiction gadgets, science, and astronomy, you are still left with a fascinating fantasy. This is mythic storytelling, like The Aeneid of the Greeks or the Vikings’ Poetic Edda–written in the style of folk legends a society builds itself upon, only here it’s as literary entertainment. City of Illusions has the kind of creative ideas Le Guin’s contemporary Philip K. Dick was putting forward in his own science fiction of the era, and fans of his works may see equal parts of Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint mixed here with his 1966 short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” later Total Recall. But the style feels more like fantasy writing. Her best character study may be of the timid and courageous heroine Rolery in Planet of Exile, a story fans of Michael Blake’s Dances with Wolves or David Brin’s The Postman should love. The fact that these types of gritty, dramatic stories were available decades earlier in science fiction is fascinating, especially as part of an artist’s first works.
All three stories fit together with important ties, both genealogical and cultural, as readers encounter three protagonists experiencing their own hero’s journeys. In a prologue to the trilogy Le Guin asks, “How can you tell fact from legend? Truth from truth?” Readers learn of a necklace, a talisman that will serve as a key prop along this journey. In the first novel readers meet Lord Rokanan, an ethnographer on horseback in a fantasy with a medieval vibe, except he also has a future’s worth of technology, including what amounts to a universal translator and ansible communication. The early incarnations of both colonial development like in Battlestar Galactica along with the study and colonial military stylings of the Alien series, especially Prometheus, can be seen here, along with that mix of paranoia and truth of aliens among us from Predator and another Dick story, his 1953 alien tale “The Impostor.”
In City of Illusions, one day a young woman decides to cross into a town her kind has not visited in several years, where she encounters a strange new race with the ability to communicate telepathically. They also exhibit an incredible method of seaside warfare. When a third nation threatens war in a rare season of winter, will two long-feuding nations reconcile or face extinction together? Indigenous society traditions intermingle with a retelling of sorts of the battle at Valley Forge in an incredible reflection of human nature in this novel.
Is a man named Falk even a man? Or is he an alien from another world descendant of Rokanan’s people, or somebody else? In Planet of Exile a man with catlike gold eyes awakens in the woods with no clothing and no memory, and he must forge a new life for himself with a small rural village where technology has been shunned. But a pull from afar prompts him to leave his wife and community to discover the truth of his past. How did he lose his memory? What are the truths of this world he’s lived on for six years–the reality of the stories of the Foresters or those of the people of the city of liars in a place called Es Toch? And who are the enemies called the Shing?
The storytelling, the lives and lessons of these characters reveals mastery more literary, compelling, and relevant than Frank Herbert’s Dune and more accessible than George R.R. Martin. Le Guin’s eight Hugo Awards were earned for a reason. For a truly epic journey into grand storytelling that is both compelling fantasy and intriguing science fiction, don’t miss Worlds of Exile and Illusion, available now here at Amazon.