This is a re-read. I’ve read this book multiple times. It’s one of Le Guin’s earliest works, novella-length and an expansion/continuation of a haunting short story, “Semley’s Necklace,” which is a science fiction version of a very ancient folkloric theme, the human visitor to Faerie who returns to find that during their brief sojourn, years have passed, their spouse is old or dead, and their children have grown. In Le Guin’s version, Faerie is another world and the time change is due to faster than light travel.

Rocannon is a scientist who gets stranded on a less technologically advanced world; there’s a loose plot involving him trying to communicate with his people on his own world and getting involved in a war on the world he’s on, but it’s mostly a picaresque about exploring a new world. The plot is not the point. (Nor is Rocannon himself, who is a blank slate and really exists as a body for the reader to inhabit.) The point is a series of beautiful or terrifying or strange encounters: the windsteeds, which are giant cats with wings; the city of angels and its shift from awe to horror as Rocannon realizes that beauty does not mean intelligence; the small furry creatures that rescue and guide him; his ordeal by fire, with echoes of the phoenix and Odin upon the tree. It doesn’t hang together particularly well as a smooth, continuous narrative, but then again, the picaresque is a perfectly legitimate form that just happens to not be much respected now.

Rocannon’s World is one of those books whose flaws are what make it wonderful. Le Guin has written about how it was written while she was still finding her voice and working out the rules of her universe; she points out that Rocannon’s impermasuit, which protects him from physical harm, was a clunky attempt to transfer magical armor into a science fiction setting, and ought to have suffocated him. No such thing exists in her later books. She’s correct that it is something of an awkward marriage between myth and science, and yet it creates the stunning scene in which he’s captured and burned alive, forced to stand unharmed but helpless within the flames, and finally emerges from the ashes, takes off the suit which, once off his body, appears to be nothing more than a handful of plastic and wires, and bathes naked in the river, trying to wash away the memory of flames licking at his eyes. How marvelous is that! We are lucky to have the book that Le Guin didn’t get quite right, that didn’t do what she wanted it to do. If it had been more perfect, it might well have ben less memorable.

This is the edition I have: Rocannon's World. I have to say, I really love that cover. What could possibly be better than a dude in a cape and armor, carrying a torch and riding a giant flying cat in a surprisingly practical-looking harness?
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