Welcome back to the Ursula K. Le Guin (re)read! In our third installment, we’re talking about her first published novel, Rocannon’s World.
As I mentioned last time, Rocannon’s World starts with a prologue, “Semley’s Necklace”. It sets up the various sentient races of the planet in question, and briefly introduces the novel’s main protagonist, the scientist Rocannon. But it’s not closely related to the main action, and here’s why…
The universe of the Hainish tales has FTL communication technology. (Le Guin coins the term “ansible” here; it will later be picked up by other SF authors — see the Wiki article on ansibles.) But what it doesn’t have is FTL transportation for humans. Le Guin will explore the implications of this in various ways as she goes on.
For Rocannon’s World, the initial significance is that due to the quirks of non-FTL travel, Rocannon meets Semley on a space station, then she returns to the planet, but when Rocannon follows, he lands many years later, when Semley is dead and her grandson Mogien is already an adult. It also means that when Rocannon’s ship is destroyed along with his shipmates shortly after landing (not much of a spoiler — it happens in Chapter 1), he is stranded and his home planet is in danger…unless he can make his way across the planet to send a warning.
So we arrive in a pretty straightforward fantasy quest story, trekking across vast stretches of land while exploring varied landscapes and peoples along the way. The fantasy resonances go right down to the multiple sentient races — the Bronze-Age feudal tribespeople (the Angyar), hobbits (Fiia), dwarves (Gdemiar/Clayfolk), and more that Rocannon meets along the way. The inhabitants call Rocannon a Starlord, although they don’t think he’s a god. There are even giant flying cats that can be ridden. (Le Guin would later repurpose the idea in her children’s series Catwings.)
Still, Le Guin has fun with the SF side as well, showing both the low-tech and high-tech perspectives. Semley’s story does a neat job of exploring spaceflight and other high-tech stuff from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand it at all. In the main part of the novel, there’s a battle of wills between Rocannon and a random belligerent hall-leader who clearly does not understand Rocannon’s protective suit but is determined to beat Rocannon (spoiler: he loses, partly because of the suit but also because Rocannon gets rescued by someone whose life he saved earlier).
Le Guin is also engaging with some big themes while telling an adventure story. For example, what does loyalty mean and what is a life worth? Yahan pledges his life to Rocannon to protect himself from Mogien after he defies Mogien’s orders, then saves Rocannon’s life by rescuing him from the warlord (as mentioned above). Rocannon later gives up the necklace to save Yahan’s life. Several of his companions die to get him to his destination (in fact, Mogien dies as payment for Rocannon’s newfound telepathy, which proves to be essential for Rocannon to complete his quest).
There’s also a running theme of naming. What’s in a name? Are names necessary when you (a) are telepathic, and (b) can describe everything in relation to everything else? Kyo, the little Fiian, is actually named after his village; Rocannon first loses his own name’s pronunciation (the locals call him Rokanan) and then his birth name (he gains the epithets Olhor, the Wanderer, and pedan, the god).
And there are a few stellar moments of “sense of wonder”: the flying on giant winged cats; the creepy but cool Winged Ones and the little word-collecting Kiemhrir; flying through a mountain pass in a snowstorm and emerging high above a MUCH lower plain.
This is early Le Guin, and it shows — it’s much less sophisticated than her later work, but you can see the seeds of the writer she will develop into. For example, she’s already paying a lot of attention to the prose, which makes this a treat to read. Surprisingly (if you’ve read her later work), there’s no exploration of gender, and it’s a heavily male-dominated story; the few female characters are very much sidelined, but at least they’re not stereotyped.
The worldbuilding isn’t terribly complex, but she clearly made an effort to keep things consistent. For example, most of the fauna (of all sizes) are mammals with wings. There aren’t any insects, and therefore there are no flowers – tree pollen simply releases itself. And not one but several of the humanoid races are telepathic to some degree (she was writing in an era where telepathy was firmly in the science fiction arena).
Rocannon’s World forms a loose trilogy with Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, linked by the shadowy Enemy that Rocannon faces. We’ll be talking about those two in the near future, probably with some short stories interwoven (to make a readalong easier). But coming up first, a few announcements. Stay tuned!