#LoveHain: Planet of Exile

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Following Rocannon’s World, the second of Ursula K Le Guin’s published Hainish novels was Planet of Exile (1966), and it’s the second title up for discussion in the series of posts with the #LoveHain tag.

You may well know the drill by now: three questions follow which you’re free to answer but which you can also ignore and go freestyle with your commentary on the novel.

And when you’ve commented, and maybe linked to your own (or somebody else’s!) review or discussion, remember the third of the trio of early Hainish novels, City of Illusions, is the read for March, with a  discussion post up on Friday 31st March.

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

“The Earth colony of Landin has been stranded on Werel for ten years – and each of Werel’s years is over sixty terrestrial years. After so long an exile, the lonely and dwindling human settlement is beginning to feel the strain. Every winter – a season that lasts a decade and a half – the Earthmen have neighbours: the humanoid hilfs, a nomadic people who only settle down for the cruel cold spell.

The hilfs fear the Earthmen, whom they think of as witches, and call the farborns. But both peoples have common enemies: the hordes of ravaging barbarians called Gaals, and eerie preying snow ghouls. Can the hilfs and the farborns overcome their mutual suspicions and join forces? Or will they both be annihilated?” — Publisher blurb on Goodreads

  1. There are three groups of peoples featured in this novel – the farborn, then the ‘highly intelligent life forms’ or hilfs, and finally the Gaal – reflecting the author’s own anthropological interests. Does the author, in giving us insights into at least two of the different cultures, allow us to be sympathetic to their points of view or not?
  2. The stranded Earthmen, the farborn, are people of colour, while the golden-eyed hilfs are fair. Is the relationship between farborn Agat and hilf Rolery meant as a part commentary on social and racial expectations in 1960s America, do you think, especially where love is concerned?
  3. Mindspeech is Le Guin’s version of telepathy, a development of the exiled Alterrans. Le Guin shows how such paraverbal communication and eavesdropping can be regarded as an invasion of privacy; however, it’s an ability she doesn’t choose to employ as a device in most of the later Hainish novels. Was she right to do so, do you think?

My own review of this novel is due to appear in a week or so, but don’t wait till then to link to any thoughts you have on any aspect of Planet of Exile!

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7 thoughts on “#LoveHain: Planet of Exile

  1. I am ahead of the game this time, I finished this a week or two ago. So here goes.

    1. The culture clash between hilfs and farborn, and the way they struggle to understand each other and work together (or not) is the interesting thing about the story — the Gaals are just a threat to both groups, not characterized as people, which is generally how we experience enemies in life, of course. It would have been interesting to also gain some insight into them and their point of view, but in such a short novella it might throw the balance off.

    2. I think Le Guin was definitely commenting on racial expectations and the fear of miscegenation, with some twists of her own.

    3. Le Guin says she couldn’t continue to employ telepathy because it raised so many narrative issues, so she dropped it. However, I think one could keep it within limits and still have it function to some extent. Maybe her interests just moved on to other things. Do you mean, was she right to use it here? I found it somehow more believable than the notion that the Farborn could have brought no foreign bacteria, nor been affected at all by the local bacteria on Werel – that is pretty impossible, but at the time of writing not much was known about the microbiome and how pervasive and vital it is for human life. Interestingly, the “mind-reading” / invasion perhaps works as a stand-in for that microbial interaction. Instead of microbes passing between people, we have thoughts. Either way, it leads to complex and messy problems!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, good points, Lory! I so appreciate the insights you bring.

      The characterisation of the Gaal as somehow not human “which is generally how we experience enemies in life” is chilling, as I suppose is how Le Guin meant it to be. That othering goes on all the time, as in today’s Britain with the rightwing press’s deliberate exploitation of paranoia about refugees, or Putin’s labelling of the Ukrainian leaders as Nazi, or US police killing Black Americans at more than twice the rate of White Americans and disproportionately killing Hispanics. Except though that in the novel the Gaal are shown to be indiscriminate in their killing as they sweep down from the north, so the othering is part of a process of self-preservation.

      I wasn’t too clear in question three, was I? Telepathic mindspeech is used in two ways here, as paraverbal communication and to eavesdrop. I suppose the first might be related to intuition or a sixth sense but with the added quality that there’d be a direct line from one to the other to essentially convey emotions; the second seems vaguer, with limitations regarding distance, but is also related to emotions rather than words. I don’t think Le Guin’s thoughts here are satisfactorily resolved, which may be another reason why she abandoned it.

      Anyway, she then switched to the concept of the ansible, which had already appeared in Rocannon’s World, and later invented churten theory – and that may have been enough theory to get on with! And your suggestion that mindspeech, the Gaal invasion, and microbial interaction as parallel themes is both interesting and plausible, one I’d definitely like to consider further, thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. When a story sticks with you for half a century, there’s something special about it. LeGuin marks so well the effects of a falling fertility on the group exiled and fading into the sunset of their promise of non-intervention. You can sense its weight.

    I hadn’t known until today that there was a common Hainish ancestry, but it makes the denouement – and the centuries-later existence of descendants of Jakob and Rolery much more plausible. I had it filed in my ‘required suspension of disbelief for a beautiful story to work’ drawer, but now the presence of the observer group, and the possibility of, essentially, interbreeding makes the story even richer: people wonder if we could have that with Neanderthals, assuming we could recreate one. Ethically challenged, but humans have done far worse.

    Doesn’t detract from the present story – but makes Jakob’s reluctance to even consider the possibility more poignant. And less alien: he knows ‘en carne viva (in his own flesh – Sp.)’ what having children under such conditions condemns them to.

    We’re used to being able to travel anywhere in the world, but in the past, when getting on that ship to the Americas, for example, the last goodbye acknowledged most people would never see each other again.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for your insightful and thoughtful responses, Alicia, always appreciated. Falling fertility, especially among modern males, is a concern for some, especially as it’s supposed to have dropped by about 50% over the last half century.

      One thing about Neanderthals interbreeding with modern humans: the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans varies – it’s close to zero for individuals from African populations, apparently, but estimated as varying from between 1 and 3% in people with European or Asian backgrounds. At least, so I understand!

      I’m reticent about researching too much into UKLG’s Hainish concepts, loosely organised as they seem to be, but her basic scenario is that Hain is the ultimate origin of humankind many millennia ago, including Terrans from our Earth; and this appears to be why the stranded population in Landin are called Alterrans (though I may have that muddled in my mind.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chiming in late – I had to finish James’ The Golden Bowl for a book group held yesterday, and that was a slog and a half! For a Le Guin, I don’t think this is a very successful work (but that’s setting the bar high – it’s good in its genre), but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I guess Agat and Rolery don’t feel fleshed out enough (although I love their relationship), and the setting similarly is sketched more than drawn.

    Q 1. Communication in all its forms is a central Le Guin theme, and the mutual misunderstanding and mistrust between the hilfs and the farborn is well depicted. Rolery’s status as summer born, not totally aligned with her society, gives us a window into the hilfs, and we can’t help but fill in the clues that show us the Earthly origins of the farborn. You are so right, Lory, that the Gaal are not depicted as people, and that’s one of the things which feels very off about this book to me.

    Q 2. Absolutely I think the Agat/Rolery relationship comments on social and racial gulfs, and that’s part of the communication theme. Love between people from different cultures is a classic Le Guin plot, from “April in Paris” (her first story) to The Telling (very much looking forward to reading that one, the last(?) in the Hain series). Le Guin can sometimes be a teeny bit heavy-handed about this, but I find it eminently forgivable – she was so far ahead of her time!

    Q 3. Mindspeech is interesting – it’s a bit like mobile phones in novels today, isn’t it? – a straight line that wrecks many narrative/suspense tricks. I think it’s a tool that turns in her hand, here, with the necessity to impose rules like “we don’t do that” which are conveniently broken, for example with Alla Pasfal listening to the Gaal. I do note that Le Guin leaves a door open to it working with animals, and there are equivalents for that later in the Earthsea books and the Annals of the Western Shore.

    Like in Rocannon’s World, the unthinking sexism jumps out at me: Wold’s attitudes (although he’s a sympathetic grouch); Rolery sad that she will bear no sons; “male hysteria!”! Some lovely images like ”feather of fire,” I loved the surprise at snow (“Snow is smaller than I thought,” says Umaksuman, and Agat “thought it would be colder”). My favorite passage for its poetry: “Wind blew, faint sun shone. Very far ahead in the west she heard an unceasing sound, an immense, remote voice murmuring, lulling. Firm and level and endless, the sand lay under her feet.”

    I did not get the whole thing about how the hilfs haven’t invented the wheel but they have “roundleg” carts etc. – is that supposed to be like a travois with a semicircle touching the ground? It seemed like a confused way to show the Prime Directive equivalent. Or did I get it confused and “round legs” is how the hilfs describe wheels the farborn use? Some of those descriptions were evocative, especially the “metal reed with a flower on top which you turned to make water run out of the reed.” I wish there had been a bit more about Absence, which seems like a depressive or dissociative state the hilfs fall into.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Never too late, Hilary! And most stimulating responses too! I agree, this isn’t UKLG’s most successful SF but still, pretty good for the time. The Gaal in a way are merely a plot device, the external threat to bring the farborn and the hilfs closer; I think – remembering the 60s and US maps with the States centrally placed and thus seemingly surrounded by Communist China and the USSR – that she may have been reflecting Cold War paranoia in a way her readers were more likely to have responded to.

      I’ve yet to get a copy of The Telling – time enough, I hope! – but here at least she’d be reflecting current concerns. I’m reminded of the producers’ anxiety over Uhura and Kirk’s kiss in a Star Trek episode two years later, in late 1968, because of the negative reactions that it might stir (though this wasn’t the first instance according to this Wiki entry: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirk_and_Uhura's_kiss).

      My own review of Planet of Exile is scheduled in a few days, and I wish I’d had space to mention many more aspects, such as Le Guin’s poetic language, so I’m glad you drew attention to that. As for the round legs – that’s Rolery’s description of how the carts move in Landin during the siege, and thus an innovation for the hilfs and yet another instance of the Hainish Prime Directive being contravened when survival is threatened. As for Absence, this is another concept she seems to hint at, perhaps to allow readers to think and ponder for themselves rather be spoonfed with solutions?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: February 2023 books read – Hilary's Book Blog

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