Worlds of Exile and Illusion
A book review.
by Ursula K. Le Guin
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This is a re-print of three short novels published in the 1960s.
In the first, Rocannon's World, humans have arrived at Fomalhaut II and found a number of sentient species, some of which appear to be related. The story follows the terrible journey of a man sent to survey the planet only to discover that the mysterious enemy - who have been slowly encroaching on the human-led alliance - have found the planet as well. The story wends through a decidedly low-tech attempt to fight back after the human research colony is wiped out. Trudging on animal back or on foot, Rocannen makes his way to the enemy site with the intention of destroying it. Along the way, he is exposed to the curious ability by the locals to speak to one another telepathically and comes to realize that this might be a key ability in the war against the invader, who have a similar ability.
The second, called Planet of Exile, is set some hundreds of years later on a planet more than a hundred light-years distant. Earth is little more than a legend, and the alliance seems to have forgotten this far-flung colony. But the story doesn't follow one of the out-worlders. Rather it follows a naive young woman from one of that planet's native species - a hilf: highly-intelligent-life-form. The humans have developed and retained their ability for telepathic "sending" but have lost their purpose with their ability to reproduce. She finds them hanging on by their fingernails. Then the nomads come on their autumn migration, in numbers never-before-seen. Her people are forced to make some hard decisions about allying with the otherworldly humans.
City of Illusions is the story of a man with no identity who stumbles into a home in the woods with few words and strangely cat-like eyes in an otherwise human face. He relearns speech and a sense of self and recognizes that he must follow a lead to a distant city. He leaves, and sends himself on a dangerous collision with the world's master. It comes out that this is Earth, several centuries after the events of the second book, and that he is a descendant of the people who hybridized on that distant planet. The Earth he roams is one kept at a primitive level of development by the enemies that have been ruling it for over 1,200 years. He encounters animals that can speak, empaths that hide from humanity, and the City of the Lie. Will he be able to work out who he is, what he must do, and how to liberate humanity on its forgotten homeworld?
I loved this trilogy. The prologue to the first story alone is so captivating I cannot see how it could possibly be improved. This trilogy is not easy reading, with the third book's relentless oppression making it the hardest. But the reward is something else - how the author devised this tale in the first place is simply beyond me. It's a tonally-consistent tale, and unfolds in a way that I found authentic and insightful. It's hard to imagine that this came out in the sixties, when decidedly less engrossing and less imaginative work was king. It would fit right in with the stuff coming out in the nineties.