The simple greatness of Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Science Fiction Novels

Her early work (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) contains all the pulpy goodness of 60s SF but is still distinctly Le Guin.

 

Science Fiction is beautiful. It can transport you to a planet of endless winter, make you feel the cold air prickle your lungs, see the strange clear emptiness of the sky. Science Fiction is powerful. It can make you question the foundations of human identity. Sturgeon’s Law, posited by Theodore Sturgeon in response to attacks on the quality of SF, states that 90% of everything is crap (including the High Literature from whose peaks some critics scold speculative fiction). He’s not wrong. In my early 20s I was under a different impression — almost all the SF I read at that point was steeped in beauty and shot through with clarity, because I was reading mostly Le Guin. Science Fiction, as practiced by Ursula K. Le Guin, is perfection, even in her early days when she was still finding her footing.

I picked up the Library of America 2-volume Hainish Novels and Stories a while back. It is a breathtaking example of just how beautiful physical books can be, and it contains most of Le Guin’s SF novels and many of her stories. After a few months just staring at the talismanic presence above my desk, I actually opened vol. I and read the first three novels of her Hainish cycle — Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions.

If you want a cheaper option, just those three novels are collected here: https://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Exile-Illusion-Rocannons-Illusions-ebook/dp/B01MQIG9PL/

le guin science fiction books
Library of America does good work — these are beautiful.

A Summary

The three books are a loosely related trilogy chronicling the efforts of the League of All Worlds to prepare for the oncoming Enemy, their subsequent failure, and what happens next. The books don’t bother with the actual war, fiery space battles, or high statecraft. The collapse of galactic society happens almost in the background, and Le Guin focuses on the small, human stories of those who have to live through it.

In Rocannon’s World, the title ethnologist is sent to further study Fomalhaut II, an unadvanced planet whose people the League is attempting to train up for use in the coming War. His ship is destroyed by rebel elements, and the novel is him journeying across the strange planet to find a way to notify the League and retaliate.

In Planet of Exile, Terran colonists came to the planet Werel to bring the inhabitants into the League, again in an attempt to build their strength for the coming War with the Enemy. The war starts right after they land, and some of them take the ship and go back to help. The book starts 600 years later and follows the interactions between the native Tevar, a semi-nomadic culture whose major variance from Terran-standard is catlike eyes, and the colonial remnants, who call themselves Alterrans. Distrust becomes grudging respect becomes unity as both cultures work together to prepare for the dual threat of the oncoming (15-year-long) winter and barbarians who are marauding their way south.

In City of Illusions, the victory of the Enemy and the dissolution of the League is an established fact. The Shing control Earth and have made it fallow — the population is sparse, great forests and prairies are reclaiming forgotten cities, and humanity lives in small enclaves scattered throughout the wilderness. If they attempt to build anything of greatness (advanced science, a spaceship, a true civilization) the Shing wipe them out. Enter Falk, a man with cat’s eyes who wakes with no memory in the middle of the Eastern Forest. He spends five years with the kindly House who nursed him back to health, and then he goes on a mission to the Shing city of Es Toch (apparently in Colorado) to find out who he was.

The greatness of these novels isn’t so much their plot — the outline for 1 and 3 are fairly basic journey narratives, and book 2 is a forbidden love Romeo/Juliet thing with barbarians thrown in. It’s not the plot, though, it’s what you do with it. Shakespeare stole the plot of Hamlet outright from Thomas Kyd, a guy whose name no one knows. The framework, the general structure of the story is not what’s important here. It’s what Ursula Le Guin does with it. Steak is a basic foodstuff, but there’s a huge difference between well-done with ketchup and medium-rare with béarnaise sauce. The greatness of these early novels lies in Ursula’s knack for invention and cognitive estrangement, her descriptive power, and her anthropological depth.

Games of Perception

Cognitive estrangement is the gap between the reader’s reality and the alternate reality presented by Science Fiction — that rubber-band snap of “oh, that’s not how things are here” that serves as a jumping-off point for further reflection. Le Guin is a master of it. Throughout these books, there is a shifting of perspective, both between the “what is” of reality and the “what is not” of fiction, and between our perception of basic objects and how an alien or far-future society might see those items. That second part, where the characters in the story don’t recognize futuristic objects, isn’t technically cognitive estrangement, it’s more dramatic irony, but the effect is still intriguing.

 

  • Erkar — In City of Exile, Rolery, a member of the nomadic Tevar tribe, has married into the Terran colonist society and sees a picture that confuses her. She asks what it is.

 

“And that?” [asked Rolery]

“An erkar.”

“I listen again,” Rolery said politely — she was on her best manners at every moment now — but when Seiko Esmit seemed not to understand the formality, she asked, “What is an erkar?”

The farborn woman pushed out her lips a little and said indifferently, “A…thing to ride in, like a…well, you don’t even use wheels, how can I tell you? You’ve seen our wheeled carts? Yes? Well, this was a cart to ride in, but it flew in the sky.

An aircar — the way Le Guin constructed this exchange, the reader’s realization of what the erkar is hits at the same moment that Rolery’s does. It’s a wonderful piece of narrative.

 

  • The entire United States — In City of Illusions, Terran society fell over a millennium ago. Everything the main character sees on his journey is after centuries of degradation. When he crosses the Mississippi from a tributary river on a glider, he sees it as we never could:

 

“The days and the river went on, flowing with him, until on one still gray afternoon the world opened slowly out and out into an awesome breadth, an immense plain of muddy waters under an immense sky: the confluence of the forest river with the Inland River. It was no wonder they had heard of the Inland River even in the deep ignorance of their isolation hundreds of miles back east in the Houses: it was so huge even the Shing could not hide it. A vast and shining desolation of yellow-gray waters spread from the last crowns and islets of the flooded forest on and on west to a far shore of hills. Falk soared like one of the river’s low-flying blue herons over the meeting-place of the waters. He landed on the western bank and was, for the first time in his memory, out of the forest.”

The Mighty Mississippi
Yep, it’s big.

In the far future of humanity, after the collapse, even something as well-known as the Mississippi River is shrouded in rumor and darkness, an unexpected glory to behold. On a barbarian planet, a local woman is completely unfamiliar with the concept of a flying vehicle. This dissociation between how things are and how things could be and the tension between the two is vastly pleasurable, and instances of this happen again and again throughout Le Guin’s work.

Exploding Starships and the Mississippi River

Other authors bring you to another world. Le Guin plants that world right inside you — she has such a strong conception of place and such power of description that she can make whatever she’s describing part of you. The passage about the Mississippi River above is one example. Another is the very beginning of Rocannon’s World, in which Rocannon’s ship is destroyed right off:

“A high tree of blinding white grew quickly, soundlessly up the sky from behind South Ridge. Guards on the towers of Hallan Castle cried out, striking bronze on bronze. Their small voices and clangor of warning were swallowed by the roar of sound, the hammerstroke of wind, the staggering of the forest.”

She could have just written, “Rocannon’s ship exploded.” Instead, she takes a few extra sentences to describe the harsh light of the explosion, the reaction of the indigenous people, the wash of sound and wind, the shaking of the trees — Le Guin anchors the reader so solidly in the world she builds that the only comparable talent I can think of is Tolkien.

Le Guin and Leakey

The sheer depth of the alternate societies in Le Guin’s work sets her apart from lesser SF writers, and that talent is on display here. The rules, structure, and mores of every place that Le Guin writes about are clear and intricate, and indicate an attention to detail lacking in a lot of other speculative fiction. All three books are filled with multiple societies, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll focus on fragments of two of them:

  • Rocannon’s World is inhabited by a stratified, medieval-level society. The dark-skinned, light-haired Angyar rule over the light-skinned, dark-haired Olgyior in a feudal system filled with castles, blood-oaths, forays, and marriage pacts. When all of Rocannon’s friends and colleagues are murdered, Mogien, the Angyar lord he’s been staying with and studying, pledges his sword to the defense of the League (against interstellar bombers). As Mogien drinks in sympathy with Rocannon, he states, “May our enemy die without sons,” which is a perfect, jewel-bright encapsulation of their society — what greater curse in a rigid patriarchy than to die without sons?

 

  • Planet of Exile  has the Tevar, the indigenous semi-nomadic people who spend the long summer in tents in the Summerlands, and only come together as one in the Winter City, an underground warren where their grain stores are buried. In order to start clan meetings, everyone bangs on rocks in the stone circle in a cacophony until the chief comes and starts banging his own rock. Those to the right and left of him match his rhythm until everyone is hitting in unison. Any meeting starts with a mystical invocation of its ultimate goal — unity and agreement.

Le Guin builds societies of such complexity and detail that it feels like they would exist even if we weren’t there to watch. Their foundations are stone-solid and deep.

The Late Pulpalignean Era

These three books are early, not as polished, from the “Late Pulpalignean Era” as Le Guin calls it. The pulpiness is part of what I love about these though — the laser guns and barbarians. As Le Guin advanced through her career, she moved more away from violence and pulp (in her two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, I don’t think the protagonist kills anyone at all. In fact, the latter is mostly an alien physicist talking to other alien physicists), but in these, people burn down castles, stab each other, burn peoples’ heads off with laser guns, and just generally treat the reader to a smorgasbord of aggression. These books are still distinctly Le Guin, with their tight prose, strong sense of place, and anthropological depth, but they have a pleasant roughness to them, like a chunk of amethyst pulled straight from the living Earth.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the literary equivalent of going to the gym

It’s easy to make excuses not to do it, you wonder halfway through why you’re doing this to yourself, but then you feel great for the rest of the day

I did something I haven’t done in a while. I read an extreme academic heavyweight, To the Lighthouse. I bought it eleven years ago for 2€30 in a used bookshop in Angers, France, and it’s been following me, unread, from apartment to apartment, through degree after degree, through breaking up, getting back together, and getting married — the beautiful smooth blue pebbles on its cover a soft presence in the back of my life. Driven by the English major’s vague guilt at not having read all of the Canon, the recommendation of a friend, and the glowing praise of the greatest living American writer, I finally tackled it.

Woolf's book in front of a picture of lots of books
Prettiest book I own, and I didn’t open it for a over a decade.

It is the story of the Ramsay family, their hangers-on, and the time they spend at a beach house on the Isle of Skye. You can pick it up on Amazon for convenience, but if you have the time, I recommend supporting an independent bookstore.

Each page was a struggle. This is the kind of book for which critical praise exists — if I hadn’t taken it on faith that this book was great, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past p. 50. Each sentence is so incredibly dense, sometimes German in its refusal to resolve until the final word. Very little happens. There are heaping piles of interiority. But it’s so good. The language is perfect and sure. Woolf’s understanding of the inner processes and concerns of her characters is powerful. The flow from perspective to perspective is effortless, a smooth stone skipping across a clear stream.

Mrs. Ramsay is the dominating voice of the first section of the book, and Woolf’s expert use of stream-of-consciousness means I know Mrs. Ramsay better than I know many of my actual friends. Nearly everything in the book is stream-of-consciousness, happening in the moment, inside this or that character’s head. One example is from the onset of night, when Mrs. Ramsay is finally freed from all the emotional work of being the matriarch, the social center of the entire extended household:

For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

Woolf had so little space (225 pages), and for many characters could only give slivers, but the artistry of it is that those slivers were everything — I barely read anything about James and Cam (youngest son and daughter of the Ramsay clan) but have such a powerful understanding of who they are because the small pieces of them I was given were so perfectly selected as to sketch an entire human being.

BIG spoiler coming up, but I mean, there’s barely any plot, so

And Mrs. Ramsay — oh Mrs. Ramsay. Kind matriarch, wants the best for everyone. When she dies, it is sudden and unexplained. The way the book treats her death closely mirrors actual familial loss. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, will, and body fill the first section of the book. In the last section, she’s just gone. Absent, with her friends and family wandering around trying to see the shape of their lives now that she’s not in it. The vacuum left by her loss pulls at everything that happens for the rest of the book. Lily Briscoe, a family friend, stands on the lawn of the beach house and thinks of Mrs. Ramsay:

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! … [s]uddenly, the empty drawing-room steps … the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.

That is what grief is. To want and want and not to have. The physical hollowness of loss. All the pieces of your life swirling around a center that is no longer there. My mom died last summer, and this is how I felt. This is how I will always feel. And Virginia Woolf is good enough to capture this piece of universal human psychology in a century-old book.

I am a huge partisan of action, of Things Happening in Books. Literature was invented for story-telling, not to impress your graduate advisor, and when authors forget that, the result is the most boring book ever written. However, when a practitioner of interiority literature is as impressive as Woolf, when her insight pierces to the center of all human thought and action, the absence of a car chase or two barely matters. The things that happen in our skulls are events, after all, and an author capable of accurately capturing what makes us us is a gift.