Alike in dignity: #LoveHain

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Planet of Exile (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books, 1996.

Five thousand nights of Winter, five thousand days of it: the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives.

Chapter 14

Stranded for six centuries on a planet circling the star Gamma Draconis – Eltanin, ‘the serpent’s head’ – a community of humans live isolated in their coastal town called Landin, near a promontory rock to which it’s linked by a high causeway. They are known to their indigenous neighbours as ‘farborn’, and because they’re dark-skinned are visually distinct from the pale-skinned, golden-eyed inhabitants of the planet.

A further difference is that the highly intelligent life-forms (called ‘hilfs’ here) have a stone-age subsistence as well as culture – having no concept of the wheel, windows, or books – and in keeping with their ethical principles of non-interference with a less technologically advanced culture the farborns are careful to limit the reach of any innovations.

But two factors are coming together to upset the fragile standoff between the farborns in Landin and the hilfs in their incomplete settlement of Tevar. The severe planetary winter is coming, a season which lasts fifteen earth-years; and news is emerging of a mass migration south by the marauding Gaal, inimical to both communities. On a personal level a relationship is forming which will threaten any concerted action to counter the coming storms.

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Rolery, a young hilf woman, for various reasons feels different from her kin, who are busy building a partially subterranean settlement, Tevar, in which to hunker down during the prolonged winter season. She wanders to the coast near Landin and, were it not for the intervention of a farborn, comes close to drowning as a monster tide rushes in. The farborn is Jakob Agat, a leader amongst the strangers, and she is saved when he instinctively uses ‘mindspeech’, a paraverbal form of telepathy to warn her of danger. From this moment on their individual lives, and the lives of both peoples, will be both changed and intermingled.

Is this a Romeo and Juliet scenario? Possibly, but it doesn’t play out precisely as in the Elizabethan tragedy. True, there are misunderstandings and conflict between the Landin inhabitants and the Tevarans, but the greater perils which they both face – the icy northern blast and the Gaal multitude advancing like a plague of locusts – may yet force the “two households, both alike in dignity,” to lay aside their differences.

There are other players in this drama – the venerable patriarch Wold, Rolery’s grandfather, and Umaksuman, her uncle, and also individuals in Landin’s council – who are portrayed more distinctly than others in the supporting cast, but our focus rests on Rolery and Agat who are drawn to each other. There are also other signs that things are changing – the farborn seem to be evolving physically to adapt to their new environment, though whether for better or worse may only be evident after this novel ends.

The second novel to be published in Le Guin’s longer fictions shows a growing command of her material, tauter and less diffuse I feel than Rocannon’s World. Her anthropological interests are evident in the customs, dress and rituals of the indigenous peoples, along with aspects of their belief systems. Also clear are her worldbuilding skills, even though localised in one small area of the planet. Less convincing to me are the farborn whose technology, though deliberately kept undeveloped so as not to unduly influence the pristine nature of the hilf culture, seems little different from what might be expected in the US 1960s, and feels almost quaint six decades later.

Architectural Veduta, late 15C, Berlin

Only the Gaal are to a large extent faceless – almost literally. They seem almost symbolic of an externalised danger and perhaps the Vietnam conflict, which the US was increasingly being drawn into in the mid-1960s, influenced her theme, as it was even more so in The Word for World is Forest (1972). I first wondered if the name was borrowed from Hari Seldon’s associate Gaal Dornick in Asimov’s Foundation; but Gaal is an Old Testament name, of a man who in chapter 9 of Judges sought to conquer one polity but was defeated by an alliance between that polity and another, an obvious parallel with events in this novel.

The latter part of the novel portrays a city, a “high sea-beleaguered fort,” besieged by opposing forces and the Gaal. This is a veritable microcosm, with a central square, streets leading into it from the four compass points, with gates that could close it off “so the square was a fort within a fort or a town within a town.” Le Guin seems to be depicting an ideal city from the Renaissance to contrast with the labyrinthine Winter City of Tevar, at best a temporary shelter to last just one long season.

But unlike the depictions of the Italian città ideale Landin is peopled with living humanoids with all their strengths and failings, passions and indifference, some of whom happen to have a talent for mindspeech. I suspect that in some respects Le Guin saw this as a metaphor for sympathy, perhaps even empathy, for this is the quality on which things stand or fall in Planet of Exile.

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

8 thoughts on “Alike in dignity: #LoveHain

  1. Beautiful review, Chris. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the pleasures to be found in these early novellas, although I probably should know to trust Le Guin more. The rather pulpy titles and artwork put me off for a long time, but I’m so glad to be reading and discussing them now. An interesting mixture of the outdated and quaint futuristic vision of the mid 20th century, with timeless and profound questions of existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lory –I did very much enjoy this collection of three short novels after I’d bought a copy around twenty years ago (in Seattle!) though they all felt very different from each other. Her depiction of the town of Landin in fact reminded me a bit of that in Le Guin’s Powers, the last of her Annals of the Western Shore, though the circumstances of that Spartan republic are very different.
      Despite it being, as we both now see it, a novel of its time, Le Guin’s storytelling and focus on individuals coping with societies in flux is already very evident.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My favorite of all the LeGuin novels.

    Even at the time I read this (1970s, in grad school), I noted the parallel evolution themes – the farborn don’t always have to take the meds any more to be able to eat local foods, the hilf Rolery is open to mindspeech, and the possibilities of fertile crossbreeding was tantalizing – because anything else is only for its generation, but the ability will result in shared history. The bell curves are spreading – and overlapping. I don’t remember noting the relative ages, which are now clearer from your review: Rolery is a teen, Jakob is middle-aged, and the woman who wants Jakob, of his own farborn group, is probably too old to have children, and her mindset seems defeatist even if she is not.

    Because anything that starts with attraction, and has the possibility of union, eventually becomes about the children. And having hope for a future – or not.

    How to cooperate when you are very different, and can barely communicate, is a good theme – and the timing, another winter, forces many issues when lack of cooperation could result in extinction. And of course not everyone is equally on board.

    There were heavy costs – the Gaal are eventually defeated enough to give up and move on, but important characters paid the price. It felt real. War in cold felt real. Decisions having long consequences felt almost medieval as they struggled to find new places in a new hierarchy – maybe.

    Not just SF, but a good novel.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Alicia, not just SF but a novel of ideas and, I would add, one with evident literary qualities – there are passages of real poetic power which help make the narrative vivid and give it substance.


  3. Lovely review – it really gives me the feeling of the book. Somehow it reminds me of some of the themes in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – the idea of a winter lasting many years particularly. Once I got onto this track I found myself comparing Landin to Kings Landing!

    Liked by 1 person

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