You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Le Guin, possibly from around 1970
Rocannon's World was Ursula K. LeGuin's first published novel and is the first of her novels I have read. I've always thought that if I read Le Guin I would read The Left Hand of Darkness, since it was the big prize winner and the one everyone read back in the 1970's, during the years after it first appeared and Le Guin's reputation was on the rise. But I was not reading SF at that time, so I had only minimal interest, and, even worse, the novel always came with the dreaded recommendation, "No, even if you don't like science fiction you are going to love this book." So I never read anything and only now, with both a renewed interest in SF and a self-directed tour through those writers who have earned Grand Master Status from the Science Fiction Writers of America, am I discovering the pleasures of her prose and storytelling.

Having decided to dive in, I headed straight for Left Hand but saw that it was the fifth novel in something called The Hainish Cycle. I like to start at the beginning, and in the Le Guin omnibus edition I got from the library,Rocannon's World was a tempting ninety pages long. I didn't know until after I finished and enjoyed it that in fact there are two chronologies to the Hainish Cycle, the order written and the order in which the stories are occur. I could have started anywhere, since in some cases a millennium passes between narratives, but I still like the idea to seeing how Le Guin's writing and sense of her future world develops in the real time of her composition.

Ninety pages, but since I was reading a bargain omnibus edition they were longish pages. Rocannon is still a short novel, only 144 pages in its PB editions. But in those few pages, and in her first novel, Le Guin creates an small-scale epic, both a classic quest tale and a story that spans several generations.

On the planet Fomalhaut II, as the advanced space lords refer to the novel's locale, the culture is medieval and, unusual for all the inhabited worlds they investigate, there are multiple HILF's, HIghly Intelligent Life Forms. In the prologue, Semley, child of an ancient family wedded to the Lord of Hallam, endures the fallen estate of her family -- good name but short of wealth. In a culture where display of wealth assures rank she sets out to retrieve a magnificent jewel that has somehow left the family treasure and been traded back to the Clay People who mined it. Within the first dozen pages, Semley has left her home, recruited the aid of the charming Kirien people and journeyed to the altogether less engaging caves of the Clay People. That this journey is made on large flying cats is likely to be the first narrative hurdle for readers who like their SF harder than softer. The hints of hard SF occur when the Clay People enter the action. Grungy and unappealing as they are, they live in underground cavern's equipped with electric light and railways.

When Star Lords investigate new planets with multiple HILF's they chose a species most likely to accept the technological head starts that will prepare them to join the League of all Worlds. The Clay People have won out on Fomalhaut II. They even have a space ship, into which they bundle Semley for transport to the planet where her jewel now rests in a museum of interplanetary artifacts. There she catches the eye of Rocannon, an anthropologist employed by the League, and he easily arranges for the return of the jewel. (This was written in 1966, and I wonder when the controversies over the return of imperialist plunder from European museums began to take shape.)

Upon return to Fomalhaut II, Semley understands the consequences of her journey. In Le Guin's universe, FTL travel is only possible in unmanned spacecraft. Although Semley feels her trip has taken no more than a year, she returns to a home where her husband and mother-in-law have been dead for a decade and her children are grown. Her courageous and adventurous journey has secured her nothing more than a long, solitary life.

That took me almost as long to tell as it does Le Guin, but it sets up the story of Rocannon's establishment decades later of a base of Formalhaut II. We learn of this base only as it is destroyed, along with Rocannon's survey team and all the work they have done. The universe is in a constant state of war preparedness, but this attack seems to have been sabotage, the first signs of divisions within The League of All Planets. Rocannon, unable to communicate with his own people, learns from satellite surveys that the enemy has established a base in the still unexplored Southern Continent. He puts together his own plucky crew of various species and it is back onto the flying cats.

This is a quest adventure, that without Rocannon's, or more properly, Le Guin's eye for anthropological detail and interesting world building, would slide into adventure fantasy of a most ordinary sort. But the swiftness of her writing, the predicaments she creates for her believable multi-species characters, and also her willingness to kill off so many protagonists kept me wrapped up in a narrative that seemed much larger than its ninety pages. Before his departure, an aging Semley gives Rocannon her precious jewel, should he need it along the way. And so this absurd, medieval artifact remains as crucial to the story as the special body suit Rocannon has on hand that although it makes him appear naked allows him to survive fire and torture.

When men like Rocannon join the star service, they know they are abandoning anything resembling a normal life of family or human contact. They may age slowly and inexorably as they poke about the universe, but centuries will pass on earth. Although contacts with home can be accomplished with a device capable of instantaneous communication across 120 light years, they have volunteered to become exiles in the name of science. It's the respect Le Guin feels for their choices and the fundamental loneliness of their existence that give the novel its emotional depth. And I liked the flying cats.

Cool Flying Cat

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