#LoveHain: City of Illusions #UKLGsf

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

It’s the last Friday of the month and the time to pose three general questions for those who are participating in #LoveHain, my readalong event to visit or revisit most of Ursula K Le Guin’s Hainish fiction.

This month it’s City of Illusions, the third title in her early speculative fiction, first published in 1967 and now often republished, as the last in a trio with her two previously published Hainish novels, in a compendium entitled Worlds of Exile and Illusion.

April’s title for consideration will be one of her more famous SF offerings, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and the discussion post for that will be scheduled for Friday 28th April – I do hope you’ll feel able to join in the conversation.

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  • As Le Guin’s title suggests, this is a story about illusion. What kinds of illusions is Le Guin referring to here, do you think? And, after setting her first two novels on planets called, respectively, Rokanon and Alterra, is she here also perpetrating a subtle illusion on us, the readers?
  • The story begins in a sylvan glade when a golden-eyed stranger bursts in on a forest community, but later moves to the city alluded to in the title. Apart from the obvious contrasts between the two environments what other differences is Le Guin trying to contrast?
  • The man called Falk is soon portrayed as the main protagonist, but what do you also make of the others who interact with him and the roles they play in the story?

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

Feel free to ignore the prompts if you have different thoughts about the novel on your mind! My own review will appear later next month

6 thoughts on “#LoveHain: City of Illusions #UKLGsf

  1. All right, here we go!

    1. I believe Le Guin didn’t choose or much like the title, it was her publisher’s choice. However, I find it serviceable enough. The main illusion referred to, I think, is the lie that the Shing are trying to put over that they are benign rulers and not foreign invaders. The woman who seduces Falk, a part of that. Love as illusion, relationships as betrayal. The need to penetrate through the veils to solid truth, if any.
    Bringing the story back to Earth after those two other planets, but so transformed, brings its own kind of disorientation, but I wouldn’t describe it as an “illusion.”
    There are the engineered animals who only appear to be able to speak intelligently, another kind of illusion. And the whole “sanctity of life” theme, I think, is the central paradox Le Guin is wrestling with. How can you prate about life being sacred, while ruining people’s lives? What is the real life: our biological survival, or something else? How do we preserve life and uphold its sanctity without becoming oppressors?
    In a sense it’s just a narrative trick to keep Falk from being killed outright and thus obviating the need for the whole story, but it kept haunting me and making me puzzle over what was meant by it. Could be also a dig at the “pro-life” movement–Le Guin had an abortion while in college, according to the bio in the LOA edition–but it also brings up questions in our post-pandemic moment.

    2. Reality and artificiality, life and un-life (this book echoed themes of The Farthest Shore, too), love and manipulation, integrity and hypocrisy …

    3. I loved the House where Falk first landed and wished we could have gone back there. How fortunate he was to come first to those sympathetic, wise people, rather than the ones who later feared and attacked him. The boy Orry, a poignant and sad picture of innocence destroyed by manipulation. Estrel/Strella, also a victim although one of the villains, I could wish for more of her perspective, how she came under the spell of the Shing and whether there is any hope for her.
    Overall I enjoyed these three novellas much more than I expected and their images will stay with me. More than The Left Hand of Darkness, actually, which left me relatively unimpressed. But I’ll look forward to what others have to share!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a fine, detailed response, Lory – thanks for this! I’ll just give a few of my thoughts in reply to each point you make.

      1. I didn’t know the title wasn’t Le Guin’s own – I wonder what was her choice? But yes, the main illusion concerns truth and lies, honesty and betrayal; I suppose it’s all part of Le Guin’s interest in Daoism , Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching and Tao/Dao meaning path or journey (which one could argue is what this novel and many of her others consists of, the journey or pilgrimage to find truth).

      2. The yin-yang symbol subtly manifests itself throughout ‘City’ I fancy, and I hope to expound on this in a review – the dark and light of the symbol inspiring my question about contrasts.

      3. The weird thing is that I read the trio of early Hainish novels a score of years ago and the first two novels provided sharp images and vivid scenarios while this seems to echo the blankness Ramarren has regarding his origins. Did I really read this or have I imagined it?! Reread or not, it underlines why I’m happy to revisit certain authors like Le Guin again and again. Estrel for example – when Falk stays with the solitary Listener the latter says “Give my regards to any Princes or Wanderers you may meet, particularly Henstrella…” – and this alerted me to the importance of two characters who were coming up in the narrative, meaning not only did I pay attention to them as individuals but I also imbued them with personality. Like you, however, I regret that there’s no return to Zove’s House and the equanimity and acceptance those people gave to Falk.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this years ago but didn’t remember it at all, and I ended up re-reading it twice! I started early in March, and found it compelling (until Orry’s infodump begins) but hard to follow. By the time the blog date rolled around I wanted to refresh my memory and ended up going through it again. And then I heard about Le Guin’s introduction, and I took the plunge and ordered the two-volume Library of America boxed set (fancy US edition published by a non-profit that does literary lions up right). It just arrived yesterday and it’s beautiful – I look forward to having it in my hands the rest of this year for this adventure!

    The second time through, Orry’s revelations didn’t slow me down as much, but there’s still something that puzzles me about this novel – my experience of it reminds me of Es Toch itself, full of semi-transparent layers that disorient me. I may end up doing my own blog post to do it a little more justice (especially because I transcribed a bunch of quotes).

    Q 1: Illusion is such an interesting theme. It inherently builds a story, as we try along with the protagonist to figure out what is going on. I’m not sure I would have realized without Le Guin’s say-so that we are on a future Earth in this book – is that what you mean, Chris, by referring to the other two planet’s names? Especially when she mentions “stripe-eyed arcturies” alongside species I recognize. They must be a goat of some kind.

    Q 2: Yes, so many contrasts, especially between ways of living – I loved the multiplicity of societies and wanted to find out more about them. There’s also truth and lies, as Falk clings to his resolution to tell the truth; age and youth (Parth at 20 is described as older than Zove at 60), and the question of how old Falk is as an adult with a child’s memory; men and women, especially among the Basnasska and the Bee-Keepers; light and dark. A very Taoist book, even if it didn’t explicitly have Le Guin’s translations of the Tao Te Ching!

    Q 3: Indeed, the book is peopled with fascinating characters. I found Parth and the Prince of Kansas both striking in their self-possession and calm knowledge. But the most interesting was Estrel/Strella Siobelbel. Like the Shing, I found her mysterious to the end. I actually want to read this a third time, but I’ll try to save that for next year!

    I’m very much looking forward to your full review, Chris, and to continuing this Hainish journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I envy you your LoA edition, Hilary – I’ve their one-volume edition of Le Guin’s Malafrena fiction which very quickly superseded my old paperback editions for reasons you can guess at! As with you a review will eventually help to elucidate and expand on my thoughts about illusion and reality.

      Yes, the point of my first question was about how soon we realised this was set on a future Earth and, specifically, the North American continent; the mention of the Kansas Enclave was the clincher, but the clues – eg the Great Plains – were there early on. She artfully misdirects us in so many ways! Arcturies? Surely some future evolved bear?

      The contrasts – light and dark, winter and summer, the different skin pigmentation, and yes, truth and lies – all related to the yin-yang complementaries, even the sense of two aspects of the Canon, the Daoist (the Listener describes himself as a Thurrowdowist) and the Yahweh Canon.

      I too found the same characters as you did fascinating but also especially the Listener – he reminded me of the hermits in Arthurian literature who advise the knightly heroes about the next stage of the quest: I’ll have more to say about this (and more!) in future posts.🙂

      Thanks again for your detailed comments, Hilary, they’ve been most enlightening!

      Liked by 1 person

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