Today in the Ursula K. Le Guin (re)read, we’re returning to the Hainish cycle with book 2, Planet of Exile. (If you missed the discussion of Book 1, Rocannon’s World, click here.)
Le Guin herself didn’t see the Hainish books as any kind of coherent series–they’re a set of loosely connected stories all set in the same universe, but widely separated by distance and time. They’re linked by ideas such as the ansible (a faster-than-light communication technology, available even though her universe specifically does not have an FTL drive for ships) and a Federation-like entity that is sometimes called the League of All Worlds and sometimes the Ekumen.
What the Hainish books do not have are recurring characters or overarching plots across the series. What they do have are thematic links. And sometimes more…but we’ll get into that when we hit City of Illusions.
So, on to Planet of Exile…
Basic premise: A young woman (Rolery) from a low-tech alien culture meets a man (Jakob) whose people were stranded on her planet long ago. Both cultures are facing pressure from change, external forces, and the unforgiving nature of the planet itself.
This is still very early Le Guin, but you can already see her preoccupation with culture and her way with language. (I want to be her when I grow up.) I read this shortly after Rocannon’s World, which aside from the prologue (“Semley’s Necklace”) is a standard quest story / planetary romance, and pretty lightweight emotionally. Planet of Exile starts out in a similar vein, but midway through it takes a turn into classical tragedy, and I was surprised how affecting the ending was.
On an SFnal level, the planet’s orbital period is 60 Earth years long, with four seasons. That allows for a lot of fun worldbuilding. For one thing, it means the locals (the Tevarans) have a very different way of thinking about time, especially since they are nomads and live in a different place each season. Their winter homes, for example, fall out of living memory and become semi-mythical…as do the stranded aliens, who live in the same place all Year. The result is a mythic or allegorical feel to the book.
Sadly, its age is showing. The gender relations are distinctly old-fashioned — the old Tevaran leader Wold is the most obviously sexist character, but nobody questions, for example, the idea that Rolery should hide in a safe place nursing the wounded while Jakob goes off to fight. It’s amazing to think that this was published only three years before The Left Hand of Darkness (famous for its exploration of gender).
Similarly, the race relations are clunky — both the Tevarans and the aliens look down on the other and see themselves as the “humans”. The indigenous Tevaran people see the alien exiles as “not really people” and arrogant for acting like they think they ARE people; the aliens can’t believe the locals haven’t even invented the wheel. The aliens are dark-skinned, the Tevarans are light-skinned (and a third group, the Gaals, are even more so), and both can’t stop commenting on the other’s looks. The Gaals are even more “othered” — they’re not really thought of as people at all but as a biological force, like the years-long winter, until one character comments on this very late in the book.
A side note before I get into the real spoilers: The aliens follow a form of the Prime Directive, laid out by the League of All Worlds — no exposing the locals to high technology. Since they’re stuck on the planet, this means that they too are losing their technology despite efforts to the contrary. This is a shift from Rocannon’s World, where some of the locals were explicitly taught high technology (and lost some of their artistry in the process).
[SPOILERS for the ending…]
There’s a sense of melancholy among the aliens — their society is stagnant and slowly dying, because they’re stuck on a world that’s not theirs. (They seem to be Earth humans.) Until… (dun dun dun) That’s the real conflict in the book: the sense of dislocation and isolation of a people. Jakob and Rolery are just proxies for its resolution (another thing that gives the book a mythic quality). I was sort of expecting the aliens to escape the planet at the end, maybe because I mistook the Stack for a forgotten spaceship over the mantelpiece. The aliens are forced by circumstances to work with the locals, it all goes wrong at the midpoint, but they still end up retreating together and starting to integrate. The biological part of the solution comes out of nowhere near the end — it would have been better if hinted at earlier. Though I guess it kind of is, with Jakob being able to mindspeak with Rolery early on — that’s a proxy for biological transmission. Regardless, watching the aliens have their idea of “home” shift from “a place we’ll never see again” to “here in this place we’ve made”…that’s what tilted this book, despite all its imperfections, into a classic for me.
By the way, here’s some neat Le Guin news:
(1) The Earthsea novels are being reissued this fall in a new collected edition, illustrated by Charles Vess (!!!). Details and sneak peeks available in this article at The Verge.
(2) There’s a new feature-length documentary about Le Guin, by filmmaker Arwen Curry, and you can watch the trailer and read a bit more about it right here.
Next up, we’ll be looking at a couple more short stories from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and then it’s on to City of Illusions, more shorts, and then the biggie, The Left Hand of Darkness (which I’m rereading right now). Hope you’ll join me!