Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: Semley’s Necklace

First, a quick note to say that I have the beginning of a new serial story up at Turtleduck Press. It’s called Coat of Scarlet, and it’s a gay steampunk romance. With pirates, because I can.

Anyway, welcome to the second installment in the Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read! (If you missed the first installment, it’s here: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.) Today we’re talking about the short story “Semley’s Necklace.”

“Semley’s Necklace” was first published in 1964 under the title “Dowry of the Angyar”, and then reappeared as the prologue in Le Guin’s 1966 novel Rocannon’s World. In the collection of her early stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she writes that “Semley’s Necklace” was the “germ of a novel” that became Rocannon’s World, the first in her loosely connected Hainish cycle.

Rocannon himself appears only briefly, in a sort of frame story that places “Semley’s Necklace” in perspective. He is a scientist in the galaxy-spanning League of All Worlds (later called the Ekumen), which forms the backdrop of most of the Hainish novels and stories. Against this backdrop, Le Guin is free to tell whatever stories she likes, each set on a different planet, starring different characters, at a different point in history — which is why the Hainish cycle is not called a series. These days we might call it a ‘verse (at least those of us who are fans of Firefly, or of my fellow Turtleduck Press author KD Sarge).

The protagonist of “Semley’s Necklace”, the Lady Semley, has only the dimmest concept of all this. From her perspective, she might as well be in a fantasy story populated with hobbits (the Fiia) and dwarves (Gdemiar/Clayfolk). Not only does she not understand technology or spaceflight, she’s not interested in understanding. The story implies that this is more a trait of her people, the Angyar, than a personal failing of Semley’s. Or is it? What do you think?

Either way, the story presents an interesting contrast in perspectives. Semley is scornful of the funny-looking Gdemiar, but according to the documentation that Rocannon has access to, the Gdemiar are considered the most advanced race on the planet. They have a curiosity and cleverness that the Angyar and Fiia simply don’t. There’s also a throwaway line about how the Gdemiar are probably no longer capable of making beautiful things like the necklace of the title, since they’ve been guided into industrial production (no Star Trek-style Prime Directive here!).

[SPOILERS…]

The core of the story, Semley’s quest to find a lost heirloom necklace, is a Greek-style tragedy about the danger of pride – a character going on a quest she doesn’t fully understand (and doesn’t try to understand), attaining her goal, but losing the reason for it in the end. It makes spaceflight sound like a visit to Faerie, with all the tricksy agreements and bittersweet results one might expect from such a visit.

[END SPOILERS]

Le Guin writes in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters that this is the most “romantic” of her stories; later on she moves more into psychology, losing the fairy-tale feel. She’s not doing anything with gender yet, and the writing isn’t as controlled or sophisticated as her later works. But even in this early story, one can already see her interest in ethnology, in differing worldviews, in the collision of low-technology and high-technology cultures that keeps recurring throughout the Hainish tales. And I found “Semley’s Necklace” to be more emotionally affective than I expected, given how early it is in her oeuvre.

If you have thoughts about “Semley’s Necklace”, please share! I’d love to chat.

Next up: the rest of Rocannon’s World, in which Rocannon is stranded on Semley’s planet and must embark on a quest of his own. Come back the week of May 21 and we’ll discuss!

 

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