Book review: “Three Hainish Novels” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Three Hainish Novels
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 14+

This omnibus volume of the first three books of the Hainish Cycle is also available under the title Worlds of Exile and Illusion. I chose to lead with the simpler, more plainly descriptive title, mainly because it happened to be this edition that I borrowed from the public library. To be sure, it’s a bit of a misnomer. The first three installments in Ursula Le Guin’s multiple award-winning series are really more on the order of novellas, weighing in at 117, 113, and 160 pages, respectively. All three were first published between 1966 and 1967, which places them before 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness—a book I had already read before I realized it was part of this series. Adding to the confusion is the fact that two further novels published in the 1970s—The Dispossessed and The Word for World Is Forest—take place before all four books in series chronology, while the 2000 novel The Telling is the latest in both publication and canon order. Plus, the series also embraces more than a dozen short stories, collected in other books. The earliest of these, in fact, seems to have been incorporated into Rocannon’s World.

As far as I have read in the series, none of the novels actually take place on the planet Hain, referenced in the “Hainish” designation. Hain seems to be only one of many worlds—perhaps, along with Earth, one of the most important worlds—in a League of All Worlds that later, as the series develops, is replaced by a kinder, gentler entity known as the Ekumen. In the beginning, the League is all about arming and collecting allies for a war against a great cosmic enemy. By the time of the Left Hand of Darkness, that threat has passed, leaving the surviving worlds to pick up the pieces and to try for a less aggressive approach to galactic diplomacy. But if you’re looking for nifty space battles with zipping fighters, hulking cruisers, massive explosions, and darting death-rays accompanied by unrealistic sound effects, you may have a different series in mind. All that I have described is distant background to the stories told in these three swift, tightly built, intellect-sharpening and heart-softening tales.

Common themes to look for in the Hainish Cycle include the challenges of learning to communicate with a completely alien culture, the growth of a deep personal love (sometimes asexual, often tragic) between members of different races, the impact of environment on the shape of a society, and the problems that arise from relativistic space travel at near-light speeds. What this last one means is that, for instance, if you travel at light-speed between two planets that are eight light-years apart, the trip takes but a moment from your perspective, while eight years pass on the worlds at both ends of your journey. It’s a bit surprising, isn’t it? This is why space travelers in these books frequently find that they have no home to go back to, because by the time they get there, everyone they knew will have died; or why, in the earliest book in the series, the main character dismisses the idea of retreating to the nearest planet as “running eight years into the future to see what happened.” And this also leads to another theme that contributes to the dramatic strength of these books: the theme of finding home in a place far from where you came from.

Another thing these stories have in common, besides technological gimmicks such as Faster Than Light drive (fatal to humans, the drone warfare of the future) and ansible radios (which transmit instantly over any distance), is a way of beginning and ending quite swiftly. Hainish novels often begin in the middle of an experience so weird and alien that it is difficult, at first, to comprehend; then the picture gradually comes into focus. And when the final crisis is over, they don’t lollygag around before coming to an end; they delay just long enough to hit you with a final surprise, or a crowning irony, that may leave your eyes stinging and your throat tight with emotion.

Rocannon’s World

The Hainish series begins with a heartbreaking vignette, originally published as a separate short story: A beautiful princess from a planet with multiple species of “hilfs” (Highly Intelligent Life Forms) goes on a quest to recover a valuable piece of jewelry. In her pride and her love of her lordly young husband, she is ashamed not to be able to give him as dowry the necklace her family possessed ages ago. To get it back, however, she must negotiate with the race favored by the alien visitors from the League of All Worlds, and pays a terrible price for her ignorance of the Theory of Special Relativity. It could be nothing more than a dark fairy tale (complete with dwarves, elves, and gryphons), except that an ethnologist named Rocannon sees the princess and takes pity on her plight.

Rocannon’s vision of the beautiful princess does more than inspire him to visit her planet, known until then only as Fomalhaut II. More importantly, he decides to right the wrong the League has done to the planet’s multiple hilf species by arbitrarily choosing to patronize one group, while mostly ignoring the others. The resulting imbalance has had a terrible effect on the world’s cultures; but Rocannon’s attempt to correct this error, by closing the planet to League meddling until all of its continents and cultures have been studied, has drawbacks of its own. For one: it has made Fomalhaut II the perfect base for an army of galactic malcontents who are preparing an attack on the League. The rebels’ first target, before we know what’s hit us, is Rocannon’s ship. His entire survey team is wiped out at one blow, and he only survives by a stroke of luck. And now, helped by only a few representatives of the planet’s strange intelligent races, he must travel across an uncharted continent, locate the rebel base, and use their own transmitter to warn the League in time.

Along the way, Rocannon—also known as Olhor, the Wanderer—makes some great discoveries. He discovers that his destiny lies in a role other than cultural observer or diplomat. He acquires a skill that will change the course of human history throughout the galaxy. He forms cross-cultural friendships that will change not only their lives and his, but the whole world. He learns to fly on great winged cats, survives deadly encounters with several strange beings, finds home and love and heartbreaking loss, and finally leaves a mark on Fomalhaut II proportionate to the mark it leaves on him. If this book does not swell your heart with an ache of melancholy beauty, you haven’t been paying attention. But as vivid, pulse-quickening, and sparing of words as this book is, there can’t be much danger of that.

Planet of Exile

While this second Hainish novel makes brief reference to the events of Rocannon’s World, the setting shifts to another world—Gamma Draconis III, for you stargazers—and another time, some six hundred Earth years farther into the future. In local time, however, that’s only ten Years. For on this planet, a month is longer than a whole year on Earth, and a year is almost a lifetime. Because the planet has such a large moon, the tides on the seashore are insane. Because of the shape of its orbit and the tilt of its axis, winters—especially on the northern continent—are not only long (like, 15 years long), but especially severe.

The stone-age natives, who haven’t even invented the wheel yet, live from season to season without history, and just manage to survive the winters by burrowing underground, along with their herds and stores of grain. The farborns—visitors from another world, whose ancestors decided to stay behind when their starship left—have stone houses with running water and central heat; so that’s no worry. But the two races don’t mix very much, don’t particularly like each other; and though they are immune to local diseases, the farborns are dwindling in number. Simply put, the planet doesn’t agree with them. So neither group, by itself, is in much of a state to defend itself from a horde of northern barbarians, sweeping southward in advance of the oncoming winter.

Among the leaders of the farborns is a certain Jakob Agat, who chooses this most precarious moment to fall in love with a local girl named Rolery, daughter of the Tevan chief. Their ill-timed love affair jeopardizes the chances that both groups will join together to fend off the Gaal. But it also leads to an opportunity for both races to understand each other, and accept each other, as they never have before. It will have to be in good time, though; because a storm is coming. A literal storm—tons of snow, driven by fierce winds—and a storm of human (or at least humanoid) fury, as the Gaal sack first the village of Tevar, then the walled city of the farborns. Members of both groups will have to find unexpected strengths in themselves and each other, or none will survive.

Siege warfare, winter survival, encounters with terrifying monsters, and clashes within and between two interdependent communities form the exciting part of this story. But the part that may unexpectedly move you is the story of how a forbidden love saved a world, and how a planet of exile became a home.

City of Illusions

This third novella in the Hainish Cycle jumps, again, to several centuries after the previous tales of human visitors joining hands and hearts with natives of faraway planets. And now the tables are turned: for the planet where man meets alien is, in this case, Earth. Before you yawn and go looking for something a little more far-out, bear in mind that the Earth in this book is very different from the world you know. Indeed, it’s so alien that at first you might not recognize it.

Time has not been kind to our planet. Several hundred years after forming a League with other intelligence-bearing planets, Earth has been leveled by an invading race called the Shing. Not much is known about the Shing, partly because their name is a dirty word to most surviving humans. They are said to be liars through and through—capable even of lying through mindspeech, which is meant to be impossible, even among humans who have learned to use telepathy. Not much is known about how the Shing conquered the planet, except that their mind-lie was part of it. Now they spend their time keeping mankind scattered amid small, isolated enclaves, destroying all records of human accomplishment, and wiping out any human community that comes close to being a city. They do all this in the name of a seemingly benign law: “Reverence for Life.” Oh, the irony!

Into this grim future world drops a man with alien-looking eyes. When we meet him at the beginning of the story, his mind is a perfect blank; he does not even know how to talk. A kindly family, dwelling in a clearing in the eastern forests of North America, takes this mind-razed man in, teaches him, and (for the most part) gives him their love, along with the name of Falk. At last Falk has learned enough to set out on his own, and though it means leaving the girl he loves, he does so. He heads west, in search of the Shing city of Es Toch and the answers to the mystery of who he is, where he comes from, and what happened to his memory.

Like most of the Hainish novels that I have read so far, this one follows the outline of a seeker-quest myth. It’s a powerful story shape, and Ursula Le Guin knows how to make it work. Falk’s journey across what used to be the continental U.S.—now a wilderness sparsely populated, and that mostly by menacing characters—is a potent blend of weirdness, terror, heartbreaking romance, and wilderness survival drama. Only when the bulk of the adventure is behind him does the book really begin to blow your mind. For that’s when we meet the Shing themselves, headquartered in a bizarre city on the rim of the Grand Canyon. They have an explanation for how Falk lost his memory—but can they be trusted? They seem to know how to restore the memories of his previous life—but at what cost? The decision that faces Falk is bigger than the life-or-death choice of whether to sacrifice the person he has become during his years on earth to become again the alien visitor he once was. In fact, his decision may be a matter of life or death, slavery or freedom—for himself, for his homeworld (wherever that is), and for Earth.

Once you fully appreciate the position Falk is in, you will wonder how in the galaxy he is going to get out of it. There seems to be no possible solution. Yet that is only a signal to brace yourself, to prepare to be amazed. You might come to see awesome, brain-tickling spectacles, like starships crossing hundreds of light-years of relativistic space, aliens driving around in air cars, cowboys shooting missiles at personal hovercraft, and futuristic people exhibiting the full range of mind-reading abilities. But you may be surprised to find your heart engaged as well: caught up with Falk in an agonizing dilemma, crushed by a friend’s betrayal, torn by a killer identity crisis, and kept off-balance by the lies and manipulation of a group of villains who may or may not be alien enemies, but who are definitely up to something. And when it ends, you’ll be on the hook to find out what happens next. See the next book in the series, The Left Hand of Darkness, for the answers—though the saga leaves most of the details to your imagination. If it stimulates your imagination as much as it did mine, that won’t be a problem.

This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!
This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!