Another re-read of an early, novella-length book, this one much more firmly science fiction than the science fantasy of Rocannon’s World. I prefer the later, but then again, I really like science fantasy. In this book, technologically advanced humans settled on a planet already inhabited by “hilfs” (very nearly human people, but less advanced and not able to breed with humans), briefly, they thought, as refugees in an intergalactic war. No one ever came to pick them up. Generations later, they live in an uneasy coexistence with the hilfs they look down upon, a semi-isolated colony slowly losing its superior technology due to lack of infrastructure and people who understand how to use it.

The heroine is Rolery, a hilf girl who falls in love with a human man, Jacob Agat, and so comes to learn both about human culture and about the likely future of humans and hilfs; the reader understands more than she does, but not a lot more. Rolery is a very real-feeling character, unlearned but not stupid. Agat is more generic. The romance is really there to enable us to see humans through an alien’s eyes, and vice versa; the story is much more about culture clashes than about a love that transcends them. It’s extremely atmospheric, with long winters and creepy snow wraiths. The closing revelation about the future of the world feels inevitable in retrospect, but powerful as a conclusion: a disaster to some, but hope and a future for others, depending entirely upon their point of view.

I recall Le Guin discussing this book as an attempt to write a protagonist who changed the world without taking the sorts of action a traditional protagonist of sf at the time would take. I assume that at the time, sf heroes were mostly either solving scientific problems or fighting, because Rolery's main action is both active and common in a different genre - she chooses a man despite disapproval from both humans and hilts. (She actually takes quite a bit of action apart from that, but that's the one from which all else follows.)

But that action doesn’t change the world so much as it illuminates something that was already going on, and would have happened even if she and Agat had never met. The Terrans' belief that they don't belong, are an island of civilization on a primitive planet, and should have nothing to do with the hilfs is driven and supported by their actual physical differences: they can't eat the food without taking digestive enzymes with it, they can't interbreed, they're telepathic with each other but not with the hilfs, and they can't be infected by native bacteria. But the Terrans have been slowly adjusting to the planet over generations, and some hilfs can, in fact, be telepathic. Rolery and Agat can mindspeak to each other, and Rolery recognizes that a Terran is dying of an infected wound. (And very possibly saves Agat by cleaning out a minor wound of his, which Terrans normally wouldn't bother to do.)

Rolery is the first to point out the change, though it takes a Terran to understand its implications. But she didn't cause it. Presumably someone else would have eventually figured it out if she hadn't, though it might have taken a while; the Terrans had already noticed some of the changes, but ignored or discounted them because they wanted to hold themselves separate, and didn't want to believe that they were not so different from the "primitive" hilfs.

Rolery isn’t particularly an unconventional heroine in terms of her actions, from a current perspective – she falls in love and chooses a forbidden mate, and becomes a bridge between cultures – but the world does feel very different seen through her eyes. To me, it’s her perspective rather than her action that’s unusual and interesting.

Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Three Complete Novels of the Hainish Series in One Volume--Rocannon's World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions

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