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
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

Le Guin says in Language of the Night (which I basically memorized as a kid when I got it out of the Santa Fe Public Library) that

"(Rolery) chooses the Other.* This small personal rebellion, coming at a crucial time, initiates events which lead to the complete changing and remaking of two cultures and societies....the central mover of the events of the book, the one who chooses, is, in fact, Rolery. Taoism got to me earlier than modern femnism did. Where some see only a dominant Hero and a passive Little Woman, I saw, and still see, the essential wastefulness and futility of aggression and the profound effectiveness of wu wei, 'action through stillness.'"

Then she goes on "All very well," but Rolery is still the acted-on and Jakob (not Jacob) is the actor and she realizes she was basically supporting the sexism of that while trying to undermine it, because her consciousness hadn't been affected by late sixties feminism yet. It's an interesting take on the flaws in her own work, like the constant revisions to her essay about pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin's forewords to her own early novels (I think they happened with Ace reissues and are all in LOTN) are well worth reading, she's really clear-eyed about her own faults as a young writer and what she was trying to do. The Worlds of Exile omnibus edition doesn't have them, which is maddening.

I think another, more modern-day criticism would be that Rolery expresses her rebellion through romantic feelings for Jakob, and I think it's deliberate on her part that this doesn't happen with Tenar and Ged in Tombs of Atuan (1970) and Eye of the Heron (1978) (which a lot of people think is drab and dull, but it has a great heroine, and she has to unexpectedly take charge when the hero [SPOILER]). Amusingly, Genly Ai, a straight man from Earth, is the one who winds up loving the alien in Left Hand of Darkness and changing the world that way, which I think is deliberate on Le Guin's part.

Anyway, this is one of the few Le Guin books I didn't reread a lot, I don't remember why -- I think I just found Rolery's society too stifling and her options for rebellion too limited. It's also a little too slow and stately for me, altho the language is beautiful -- more like her fantasy narrative voice. I wouldn't have thought it at the time, since I hadn't read it then, but it's very Malafrena-ish, and I think Le Guin was still trying to sell novels and stories set there at this point in her career. (Could be wrong, though, I just remember it was an insanely long time -- she and Madeleine L'Engle had a really tough time breaking in to early sixties publishing.)

*Always a mark of extreme courage and real heroism in Le Guin's work, usually carried out in deceptively "small" actions.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

I think when I read it (probably 20+ years ago now, God) I agreed more with Le Guin's evaluation of it, but I'd have to reread it to find out. I think I reread CoI four or five times and RW a lot more, but not this one more than once or twice, IIRC.
coffeeandink: (Default)

From: [personal profile] coffeeandink

I have always been very fond of this one. It's not as original or striking as Le Guin's later work, but the mood has stayed with me.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid

I read this about 18 months ago thinking I was reading the one about the political exiles and criminals who get sent to another planet, but it turns out that one is called Eye of the Heron. Once I'd got over my sense of "this isn't the book I meant to read" I enjoyed it very much.

From: [identity profile]

A thing I have thought about PoE is that there are many SF books that model colonialism on the US experience, with aliens playing the Native Americans, and there are some that do British colonialism with the aliens as native whatever, but this is the only book that models it on Greenland with the aliens as the Inuit and the humans waiting and waiting for the ships that didn't come.
lokifan: black Converse against a black background (Default)

From: [personal profile] lokifan

Belated, but - ooh, this makes me want to read it even more than the post, because the Greenland Norse vs Inuit interactions are pretty fascinating to me.

From: [identity profile]

I realized belatedly that I didn't comment when I re-read Rocannon's World as suggested, and since it was packaged with this and City of Illusions I read those too.

This book is definitely more SF in tone than the first book, but the third book feels to me as if it veers back to fantasy a bit - not as much as the first book, with its quasi-elves and dwarves, but it's basically a quest book, with a lone protagonist trying to find the magical city. Have you read it?

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