#LoveHain: Rocannon’s World

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin “redrew the map of modern science fiction, imagining a galactic confederation of human colonies founded by the planet Hain, an array of worlds whose divergent societies—the result of both evolution and genetic engineering—allow her to speculate on what is intrinsic in human nature.”


Incorporating ‘The Dowry of Angyar’ – a short story from 1964, here retitled as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ – Rocannon’s World (1966) was Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel and the first work to be considered in our #LoveHain readalong starting today, as 22nd January is the fifth anniversary of the author’s passing in 2018.

As I indicated in the introductory post, ‘Reading UKLG’s sf: #LoveHain’, for each of the eight published Hainish/Ekumen titles I shall pose three general questions (which you may either answer or ignore) to get discussion started in the comments; and here too is where you can link to your own discussions and/or reviews.

(Incidentally, you don’t have to sign up to join in the chat. And no need to commit to reading all the titles – dip in and out as and when it suits you!)

Ursula Le Guin, 1995. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch

1. As a debut novel Rocannon’s World can come across as uneven, almost unbalanced: it mixes elements from fantasy with some from science fiction, and veers from thriller to polemics. Did this impede your enjoyment of the story as a whole?

2. With an anthropologist and a psychologist for her parents it was perhaps natural that the author wrote a novel focusing as it does on ethnology and ethics with regard to the dangers of colonisation and exploitation. But does the principled earnestness of Rocannon himself make him a sympathetic or rather aloof character?

3. Many of Le Guin’s novels feature characters who go on a life-changing journey or quest – Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness for example, or Sparrowhawk in A Wizard of Earthsea – and Rocannon appears to be a prototype of this motif for Le Guin. Is there a truth or even a holy grail which Rocannon discovers or achieves at the end of the novel, and what do you think it might be?

‘Futurity.’ © C A Lovegrove. Image created using Wombo.Art app

Our next title is Planet of Exile, and you have until the last Friday of next month, 24th February, to complete and be ready to discuss it. Coming up soon will be a repost of my own review of Rocannon’s World, so don’t forget to link to any reviews or discussions you may have done or will be doing!

13 thoughts on “#LoveHain: Rocannon’s World

  1. I may only have read this book once before, but I very much enjoyed revisiting it.

    Q1: Yes, it’s uneven, but it’s got a lot of what will make Le Guin great later, in embryonic form. Her skill at world-building is already on view; both fantasy and SF can introduce us to imagined species and cultures, and hers work for me at least. I especially liked the angelic-looking birdlike creatures and the twist we get there.

    Q 2: I don’t think Rocannon is brought to real enough life for the protagonist of a book like this. We see that his compatriots are dead and he’s stranded at the very beginning of Chapter 1, but we don’t know him enough yet for it to have the emotional impact it should. We get a bit of inner POV but not much. Maybe young Le Guin is channeling too much of the detached high fantasy voice?

    Q 3: My favorite parts were the travels that form the bulk of the narrative, and already her gift for that is strong, I think. After his journey is over, Rocannon says “I am not what I was. I have changed;” what better ending for a quest?

    Le Guin loves running water, especially stony creeks and streams, which often make an appearance on these journeys. They often seem to represent the peace and untrammeled essense of the natural world. I noted how many of them the characters crossed, watered at, or slept by. The descriptions of nature are so specific and beautiful: “the ground ran and squelched and glittered with the thaw”; “Under the brilliant sky, over the brilliant water, the long hilly shores ran featureless and dark.” The names were also characteristic of her work, with lots of o’s and g’s, and there’s a foreshadowing of how important they are and will be: “‘How do you know one range from another, one being from another, without names?”

    It was very interesting how old-fashioned Le Guin’s gender roles are here (her awakening to feminism and the changes that brought to her writing is one of the aspects of her career I find fascinating). “May your enemy die without sons”!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a detailed and informative response, Hilary, thank you! And you get straight through to the essence of the novel.

      Much of the writing and content reminded me of Patricia McKillip, who though writing a decade later had a similar approach to epic SFF, at least from the little I’ve read of hers. And, interestingly, both were resident in Oregon where, surely, they must’ve come across each other. As for Le Guin’s creatures in RW, the angelic winged creatures, which I thought were more insectoid than birdlike, chilled me as much on a second reading as the first time!

      I like your suggestion that UKLG may have been aiming for a detached high fantasy voice in RW, accounting for the little we get of Rocannon’s inner life. Sparrowhawk in the Earthsea novels was to have more of a personality, such as the impulsiveness he demonstrated before he became a fully fledged wizard.

      As for the travelling part of the narrative, I recently saw a suggestion that many of her lead characters have a story arc that involves not just a quest, as here, but a return to ‘home’ – whatever form that takes – where they reflect on how the journeying has changed them. It’s evident in the Earthsea cycle’s Ged, and in Malafrena’s Itale Sorde, as examples, so I’m interested in seeing how that may emerge as a leitmotif in the remaining Hainish novels, especially the ones I’ve yet to read!

      I second your comments about the nature writing and the development of the gender roles in her protagonists – I shall pay more attention to these as I explore more!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. OK, I have finished it now, hooray. I had read Semley’s Necklace before, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, but that was just a taster. I felt more invested in the world and people after the full novella. And there are definitely connections to Le Guin’s mature works, and her strengths as well as some weaknesses are in evidence.

    To your questions:

    1. I suppose I was not surprised by this, having read the intro story already (which very much plays upon fantasy / SF tropes). I do find it awkward at times but I think UKL does it better than most.

    2. I could feel for Rocannon — the loneliness of being the only one of his kind left on this world, and yet he connected to those with whom he felt a kinship, and created new bonds of loyalty and common purpose. The faceless “enemy” was the hardest to relate to.

    3. Like all humans (humanoids?), Rocannon has to live with grief and the pain of loss, without losing his moral center. Semley went mad, when the technological world and the ancient ways of her planet collided, but Rocannon, coming from the other direction, finds a way to live with this tension.

    Overall I enjoyed it, and I would not have minded it being longer or having a sequel. Although I second what Hilary said about the old-fashioned gender roles, and the general unlikelihood of a remote planet evolving a Tolkienesque feudal society, with fair damsels in castles and so forth. I see this kind of book as another way to enter fantasy worlds, with spaceships rather than through mirrors or magic doors. If I can turn a blind eye to the inconsistencies and absurdities (flying cats?) I still have fun with the trip.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hadn’t spotted that ‘Semley’s Necklace’ was in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters but since I’ve barely dipped into that it’s not surprising! And thanks for addressing my prompt questions: I too really felt for Rocannon in his species solitude and marvelled at his ability to integrate and adapt as best he could. And I thought that Le Guin’s ‘othering’ of the pioneer colonists exploiting the planet’s resources – with the reader given no chance to relate to them – was spot on and an ecological theme she was to revisit in, for example, The Word for World is Forest.

      The flying cats?! Forgive me for apparently being flippant when I say I couldn’t get the image of He-man’s feline steed Battle Cat from Masters of the Universe out of my mind, even though it has no wings! (The TV series was a favourite of our son when he was growing up in the 80s.)

      Despite it being a little uneven in delivery I enjoyed revisiting this novel, and am now reminding myself of Planet of Exile – Mindspeech! The Farborn! – and noting what I hadn’t picked up from before. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, it seems this book is a taster for more thoroughly explored considerations later on. I am really looking forward to that!

        The flying cats reminded me of Catwings, UKL’s own picture books about adorable flying kitties. It seems like another image she had to work out of her imagination. The winged men from Tombs of Atuan have always haunted me, plus I just reread the book to review it for Shiny New Books, so that jumped out at me right away.

        I know Mindspeech fades away suddenly from the Hainish universe, because Le Guin realized it was problematic, so it’s interesting how central a role it plays here in the first book. Here it exposes the paradox and dilemma of using empathy as a weapon; I think that’s what disturbs Rocannon and sends him into retreat at the end.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I’ve yet to get to Catwings, though I’ve read much about it on blogs. I also look forward to your review of The Tombs of Atuan when it eventually appears on SNB – I think by the end of #LoveHain I may be ready for another visit to Earthsea, unless I feel constrained to tackle my so far neglected copy of Searoad. What a constantly surprising author she was, and still is!

          Liked by 2 people

            1. A beautifully and sensitively expressed review, Lory, as I’ve commented on SNB: it evokes all the deep heartache, wonderment and release that this novel explores. Really iit mustn’t be too long before I return to this series and especially this instalment for the umpteenth time, so thank you!

              Liked by 1 person

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