Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books 1996
“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII
An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.
But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.
The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.
That meld of SF and fantasy is inherent in Semley’s necklace, its centrepiece blue jewel in the darkness symbolic of a planet circling Fomalhaut (the latter is a star named from the Arabic for ‘mouth of the whale’). In the 21st century an exoplanet Fomalhaut b was actually imaged and officially named Dagon, after a Mesopotamian god, a neat instance of nature imitating art, except that Le Guin’s planet is called Rocannon’s World.
The novel’s prologue, presented as an ethnological description of a localised legend, creates expectations of a heroic fantasy to follow, and to some extent that’s met: there is an epic quest across arduous landscapes from castle to castle, partly accomplished astride gryphon-like steeds; there is miscommunication but there’s also telepathy; there are sword-fights and betrayals, along with a safe haven and a hermit. But science fiction elements bookend the novel, features such as ships as fast as light and so-called ansibles, the latter the instanteous communication devices which make their first ever appearance in literature here.
As was to become a Le Guin characteristic, the focus in this early work is on individuals. The protagonist, the Hainish ethnologist Rocannon, provides our main interest, and he proves to be principled and idealistic: following early disasters the League of All Worlds has produced its own version of the Prime Directive — the prohibition against interfering in alien cultural and technological development which Star Trek introduced contemporaneously with this novel — and Rocannon takes it very seriously. While Rocannon’s World may seem to present as a revenge tragedy, the ethnologist is concerned that the blight which has visited the planet doesn’t put other planets in jeopardy, despite the desperate measures he will have to take, and so the novel plays out more as a quest.
But we are also impressed by Rocannon’s companions, whether the lordly Mogien, the loyal Yahan, the fey Kyo; nor must we forget the stately Lady Semley and the gracious Lady Ganye. Le Guin’s determination to steer away from racial stereotyping gives us portrayals of dark- as well as light-skinned humanoids, some taller, some shorter than Rocannon; and even Rocannon is Hainish and not from Earth at all. The Faradayans are Other, and never closely described. The less said about the Winged Ones, however, the better: they are the beings that haunted me for ages after I first read this novel a dozen or so years ago, and they may affect you adversely too.
Let me finish with some reflections on this work as a product of its time. There are occasional flashes of one of the author’s first and constant loves, poetry, in the mock medieval language and the descriptions of nature, but they often sit uncomfortably with the conventions of hard SF which largely held sway until the sixties. At times the novel reminded me of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ non-Tarzan novels: these planetary romances had a Hollow Earth or a Martian setting rather than distant worlds but nevertheless usually featured a valiant loner combatting a mix of aboriginal inhabitants, alien creatures and villainous humans with a combination of modern technology and survivalist skills — much as in Rocannon’s World. But Le Guin far surpassed Burroughs as a writer.
For me, however, mostly the novel held pre-echoes of Le Guin’s breakthrough novel, The Wizard of Earthsea. Here is another male protagonist adjusting to changed circumstances, learning new skills, and having to face up to a personal shadow after undertaking an arduous journey. But then this is the story of each one of us, is it not?
“If it is not, what is?”
— Chapter IX
Another read for #SciFiMonth