Fatally reductive? #LoveHain

Ursula Le Guin, 1995. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch

Worlds of Exile and Illusion
by Ursula K Le Guin.
Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions.
Orb Books, 1996.

**spoiler alert**

Jungians such as Joseph Campbell have generalized such journeys into a set of archetypal events and images. Though these generalities can be useful in criticism, I mistrust them as fatally reductive. “Ah, the Night Sea Voyage!” we cry, feeling that we have understood something important—but we’ve merely recognized it. Until we are actually on that voyage, we have understood nothing.


A decade or so after the publication of Rocannon’s World – the first novel in a series which has variously had attached to it the name Hainish or Ekumen – it and the two following titles (published in relatively quick succession in 1966 and 1967) appeared in a compendium first entitled Three Hainish Novels (1978). When, two decades later, it appeared as Worlds of Exile and Illusion it cunningly combed key words from the titles of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions; under whatever name the collection demonstrated a loose unity in that it (a) referred to a League of All Worlds, and (b) shared some concepts and referred to some names in common.

There are also several themes, patterns and approaches in the trio of novels, though that’s not to say that Le Guin worked to any kind of formula: each title has its own musical notes and influences, landscape and personages, its own character. But at the risk of being, in her words, “fatally reductive” I do want to look a little at the “archetypal events and images” that form a large part of the journeys in these novels (and not a few of her other later ones, such as 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea and 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness) so, as it were, to praise and not bury them. 

Why? Because, despite superficial appearances, she doesn’t trade in fantasy clichés.

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

First, though, let’s consider labels. Can this trio of novels be considered as science fiction? The first has so many aspects of fantasy in it – flying cats and castles for example – that it could lead us to wonder if the label of ‘science fantasy’ would suit it better. The second, though superficially more sci-fi, throws in a lot of ethnographic details. It’s when we get to the third, set on a future Earth, that ‘speculative’ seems quite fitting a label.

And yet Le Guin already seems more focused on individuals, on their human psychology, which aligns them closer with mainstream fiction. In fact as far back as 1976 she emphasised her interest in people in a convention talk she gave entitled ‘Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown’.¹ In it she talks about how, in a railway carriage, Virginia Woolf would envisage a seemingly ordinary Mrs Brown who had stories to tell which belied her ordinariness, and how she, Ursula Le Guin, sought out a Mrs Brown in her own stories whatever their veneer – science fiction, fantasy or other – and placed her at the centre of the picture. What reason does she give?

“… when science fiction uses its limitless range of symbol and metaphor novelistically, with the subject at the center, it can show us who we are, and where we are, and what choices face us, with unsurpassed clarity, and with a great and troubling beauty.”

‘Science fiction and Mrs. Brown’ (1976)

My point is that although I may here be considering “fatally reductive” themes and archetypes I never forget that Le Guin’s fiction features various Mrs Browns, whether dressed in spacesuits, wearing wintercloth, or sporting mythic heirlooms around their necks. She invents and invests in individual humans as much as any mainstream novel might do, albeit ones who inhabit other worlds in space or imagination.

Starry sky: WordPress Free Photo Library

In my review of Rocannon’s World I listed some of the themes that occurred fairly often in Le Guin’s fiction and very frequently in her speculative fiction: “balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination…” These are all present in this early trio of novels. The relationship with the planet and with other life forms, all guided by respect as a keystone of morality, are the keynotes of all her Hainish novels and not just these three. On Formalhaut II (later called Rokanon) Rocannon respects the indigenous cultures he encounters, unlike the invading Faradayans who disregard the species they encounter, seek to exploit the planet’s resources and oppose the League of All Worlds.

Similarly the society and culture of the Tevarans of Gamma Draconis III (Werel or Alterra) in Planet of Exile are not interfered with by the stranded colonists of the League until outside environmental (?) pressures, forcing the Gaal to mass migrate south like locusts, necessitates an alliance between the colonists and the Tevarians, with subsequent miscegenation between the two peoples. In City of Illusions set on Terra (Earth) the invasion of the Shing has resulted in a depopulated planet and the formation of isolated communities, all kept in fear of the Shing and often also mutually suspicious of each other.

Culture in all its manifestations also matters to Le Guin, as it matters in all her worlds. Music, whether it’s the Tevar stone-pounding rite which precedes important tribal decisions or the flat keyed instrument called a tëamb played in Zove’s House in Terra, is a cultural signifier; so too are texts and other lore such as ‘The Dowry of Angyar’ – a narrative also known as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ – in Rocannon’s World (which recalls the legend of the torc or necklace called Brisingamen, owned by the goddess Freya), or in City of Illusions the two canons surviving on Terra, the older Yahweh canon which seems to refer to the Bible and the other which reflects Daoist teachings as represented in in Tao Te Ching.

Next I’d like to consider the quest or journey which forms the structure of all three novels. In Rocannon’s World the protagonist’s mission is to destroy the invading Faradayan base because it can become a launch pad to attack the League; to do this he has to make an epic journey from north to south through lands shaped by myth and legend. In Planet of Exile Rolery’s task is to enable an alliance with Agat’s colonists to be formed, but it is the Gaal who themselves make the journey south through Tevar lands as they try to escape the ravages of a particularly severe winter.

Finally, in City of Illusions it is Falk who undertakes a westward trek across a far future North American continent to confront the Shing and regain his identity. His quest is reminiscent of Arthurian epics undertaken by individuals such as Gawain, Perceval and Galahad, fighting mythical beasts and human assailants, aided by damsels and hermits before confronting a formidable opponent or achieving a mystical, visionary experience. But as with a gnomic saying from the Canon Le Guin keeps reminding us all these journeys aren’t at all the same, that we mustn’t cry “Ah, the Night Sea Journey!”

The way that can be gone
is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

‘City of Illusions’
Photo by Dylan Thompson on Pexels.com

I referenced winter in preceding remarks, and this season resurfaces in quite a few of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, including this trio. The approach of winter triggers the migration of the Gaal in Planet of Exile and its arrival forms the climax of the action. The season is ever a threat to humans in these stories, requiring appropriate clothing: Rocannon’s World introduces the notion of an impermasuit, a garment which protects the whole body, while in City of Illusions humans survive the harsh season with clothing made of wintercloth. Le Guin’s idée fixe returns in The Left Hand of Darkness which is set on Gethen, a world also known as Winter. It too features an epic journey.

My last remarks before a final (?) conclusion concern Le Guin’s nods towards including science fiction elements in these Hainish tales, without ever going the whole hog into ‘hard SF’ by explaining the science behind them. Spaceships identified as FTL (‘faster than light’) simply exist, despite seeming to contravene the laws of astrophysics; later novels mention NAFAL (‘nearly as fast as light’) transport for humans; and instant communication devices – ansibles or ‘answerable’ communicators – transcend even light speed.

In City of Illusions we also hear of patterning frames, a construct that seems to combine abacus with dreamcatcher and computer, being a meditation device with the predictive abilities of I Ching, while also reminiscent of the notional focus of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. These multivalent concepts are typical of Le Guin’s speculative fictions, characterising these early pieces as novels of ideas rather less than of the fays and bug-eyed monsters of much of the genre up to the 1960s.

But pivotal to them all are individuals – Gaverel Rocannon, Jakob Agat and Rolery of Wold’s kin, and Falk. They, each one the “subject at the center”, may be on journeys but they are all reaching towards very different human goals: Rocannon initially to stop an aggressor but ultimately to be part of a community; Agat to reverse the dwindling population of his stranded colony by fortuitously being able to breed with the hilf Rolery; and Falk to recover his identity and ensure the survival of his own people.

By sharing their difficult journeys we start to understand their several human natures and, hopefully, avoid being fatally reductive.

¹ Peter Nicholas, editor Explorations of the Marvellous: The Science and the Fiction in Science Fiction. Fontana Science Fiction, 1978.
(First published as Science Fiction at Large, Gollancz, 1976.)

7 thoughts on “Fatally reductive? #LoveHain

  1. Pingback: Fatally reductive? #LoveHain – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. What a wonderful essay, Chris! You pull together so many threads. Le Guin is my all-time favorite author, and it’s thrilling to get new insights and appreciation, especially of these early books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re too kind, Hilary, but thank you! I’m glad to be revisiting this trio, and now looking forward to seeing what I’ll make of Left Hand in what I estimate will be my third read.


  3. Wonderful summary of these far-reaching and deeply insightful books. I especially liked the observation that Le Guin is always concerned with “The relationship with the planet and with other life forms, all guided by respect as a keystone of morality.” We need her more than ever!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope my summary did the trio of novels justice, Lory, because as with many of her works revisits always seem to reveal even more than was first evident. And yes, respect – for the right reasons – is something that I think is a keystone to much of her work, and an abiding message which we all ignore at our peril!

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.