These are my first impressions after reading Worlds of Exile and Illusion by Ursula K. Le Guin (an omnibus of three early novels of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle published in 1995) in July 2013. Slight spoilers.
The science fiction novels of Ursula K. Le Guin, often collectively called the “Hainish Cycle,” are not intended to be a series in the conventional sense. They are meant to stand alone and be read that way. But collecting three of her earliest novels into one volume gives the reader the opportunity to read these as a series, revealing connecting themes and making for a very satisfying way to experience Le Guin’s futuristic universe. The stories in themselves are ripping adventures, as well, with two quest tales bracketing a story of war.
The three novels take place thousands of years apart, at pivotal points in the conquest of a galactic empire called the League of All Worlds, which includes Earth, by aliens from a distant galaxy. Each novel also sows the seeds for the future evolution of humanity, which will enable them to defeat their conquerors and establish a new galactic alliance.
In the first novel, Rocannon’s World, a ship from the League of All Worlds is visiting a planet where several intelligent species have been found. The humans are studying the aliens for possible inclusion in the League. One of them is Rocannon, who is staying at the home of one of the natives when his ship and all his shipmates are destroyed by an unknown enemy. Rocannon deduces that this is the Enemy that has been foretold, alien conquerors from a distant galaxy, against which the League has been formed to resist. On his ship was a device called an “ansible,” that enabled communication at faster-than-light speeds, with which he could have warned his home planet. He figures that the enemy aliens also has an ansible, and sets out with a few companions, riding big flying cats, on a quest to reach their base in the south of the planet and send the warning so that the secret base may be destroyed. It is a hazardous journey, and along the way, Rocannon encounters natives with telepathic ability, which is called “mindspeak,” and which he begins to learn.
The second novel, Planet of Exile, is set thousands of years later on another planet called Werel, which has been colonized by humans from the League planets. They have lost all contact with their home planets and have been stranded on Werel for generations. They have built a walled city on the seaside and are holed up there, keeping themselves apart from the intelligent natives, who think they are witches because they can mindspeak and possess technology. Gradually, their numbers have been dwindling, due to the alienness of the planet where they have settled; they are being rejected as a foreign body.
Werel has a very long orbit around its sun, which makes each season last for a lifetime. A person born in fall may never know spring. As Planet of Exile opens, winter is near, and a great wave of people are emigrating south, destroying everything in their path. The colonists join with the nearby natives to resist them. At the same time, the colonists discover that they are adapting to their new environment after all, which means that humanity won’t die out on Werel.
The third novel, City of Illusions, was my favorite of the three, although all of them are terrific reads. City of Illusions is set on a future Earth, a thousand years after the time of Planet of Exile. A man wakens in the forest with no memory of who he is or where he came from. He only knows that he looks different from the people who discover him. Gradually, he learns that the few remaining people of Earth live under the rule of a conquering enemy called the Shing; both the people and the Shing practice telepathy. The man sets out on a quest to reach the capital city of the Shing and find out who he is. What he discovers about himself sows the seeds for an eventual rebellion against the conquering aliens. This novel was so compelling and exciting that I really wanted there to be a sequel.
There is not one, really, although the next novel to take place chronologically is Le Guin’s most famous science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. But that is set on another planet and after another thousand years or so has passed. Interestingly, her other most famous sci-fi work, The Dispossessed, takes place before Rocannon’s World does, just before the ansible is invented, although she wrote and published it much later.
Le Guin’s imagined worlds are a fantastic blend of advanced technology and high fantasy, combining faster-than-light space travel, magical powers in the form of telepathy, and incredible beasts like the flying cats of Rocannon’s World. Her worlds and her people are richly imagined and wonderfully detailed, and her writing is pitch-perfect: fast moving but still philosophical when it needs to be. I have never disliked one of her novels, and the three collected in this volume are no exception to that rule.