Worlds of Exile and Illusion
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Tor Books, 352 pages, $19.99 (paperback)
I first encountered the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, through the sorcerous island landscape of her Earthsea novels, at around the age of thirteen. My father loved Le Guin’s work and wanted to share her magic with his son, which was, in my opinion, one of his best choices as a father. At the time, many of her themes and subtleties were beyond me, but her writing evoked mental imagery as sharp and fresh over two decades later as when I first encountered it on the page. Later, I would go on to read The Dispossessed and seek out Le Guin’s worlds of tomorrow, landscapes of technological and social futurism that seemed to positively live and breathe their own complex realities.
Yet, for all that I considered Le Guin a paramount figure in my own literary development, I never got around to reading Rocannon’s World until this Tor special edition of Worlds of Exile and Illusion. And, for this omission, my literary life has been a poorer one.
Le Guin herself, as Amal El-Mohtar points out in her superb introduction to this Tor edition, would later look back on her earliest work with hints of dissatisfaction. Rocannon’s World, Le Guin later wrote, “has a good shape,” but she disliked her own mixing of fantasy and science fiction tropes in the same package. But El-Mohtar makes the case that the “promiscuous mixing of fantasy and science fiction” Le Guin noted about Rocannon’s World actually offered a glimpse into the future of both genres, into a time when writers of fantasy and science fiction strive ever more for new frontiers to their form and craft. Le Guin’s work truly was ahead of its time.
Le Guin’s earliest writing is timeless in another way that fascinates me. Her method of exploring the far-future touches on ancient fairytale themes alive within humanity’s core mythos. In her deft prose, Le Guin captures the essence of a timeless heroic cycle, blended with the melancholy that all great tales inherit from the deepest well of human nature. This melancholic fairytale edge is sharpest, perhaps, in how Le Guin deals with the subject of time in her science fiction.
The way Le Guin explores the limitations of relativity on space travel remind me of Celtic fairy stores, where an unsuspecting mortal loses decades of time in the real world within the span of a single night. Le Guin maintains an intimacy with the fragile length of a human lifespan, pitted against the formidable vastness of Universal space and time, and the tension created through that dichotomy highlights something primal in the psyche. We encounter, within Le Guin’s fantastic fiction, a profound awareness of our own mortality.
This philosophic quality is, I think, a reason some readers are at first turned away from Le Guin’s writing. Her work is stately, poetic, and appears upon the surface like a slow-moving river. Only when one is submerged up to the knees does the incredible ferocity and wit become apparent; Le Guin’s work is rarely something to get lost within casually, for the action of her writing is almost always complex and multi-layered. Readers of Le Guin are rewarded by patience, dissuaded by impatience. This is why Tor’s re-release of this collection is so important.
Readers who have previously shied away from Le Guin’s work may have done so for many reasons, but this new edition of her earliest three works provides the chance to discover, or rediscover, a true grandmaster’s work. At a time when the genres of science fiction and fantasy are shifting and evolving in beautiful and complex new ways, Le Guin’s earliest writing provides a window into the reasons that some of those changes are now taking shape. And readers who tried her work once, and found themselves intimidated or impatient with her style, might be surprised by the poignancy and spitfire intensity of these earliest books. There’s drama and tension aplenty in the tales that young Le Guin told.
These three novels are known as part of Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle,” a series of loosely connected stories inhabiting the same literary universe but otherwise unconnected by plot or character. Rocannon’s World, as I mentioned, is as much fantasy fable as it is science fiction. Planet of Exile is a far-future romantic epic, where a colony of off-worlders, abandoned by their larger government for hundreds of years, faces the onset of a deadly planetary winter and the massing of a native horde that threatens to destroy all peaceful peoples in their path. In City of Illusions, a man with no memory must wander a post-apocalyptic Earth in search of answers, his story woven with a linguistic deftness that Le Guin would only continue to perfect over the course of her long career.
In each book, Le Guin’s characters feel real; the choices her characters make, their motivations, their fears, all offer the reader with a nearly unnerving expose of human consciousness. One might feel that, by following these characters through their intimate journeys, it is possible to better understand one’s own internal and external landscape; Le Guin’s work is, at its best, a mirror held toward nature, reflecting a keen perspective from a sharp and canny mind.
Regardless of your prior exposure to Le Guin’s work, including these three novels, the world seems ripe for the sort of psychological and social exploration that she made the core components of her writing. Changes in representation and conceptualization of popular genre fiction, alongside vast alterations in social norms, make work like Le Guin’s more important than ever to return to and reengage with. Whether you come to it with the perspective of an old fan, returning to a favored literary landscape, a new reader unexposed to Le Guin, or a halfway reader who has never looked beyond her more popular work, this Tor collection represents the perfect opportunity to sink your teeth into something wonderful.
Odin Halvorson is a pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in multiple journals and magazines, including Analog Science Fiction and Fact. An “unenlightened generalist,” Odin writes about all topics under the sun, with a special love for myth, the fantastic, space opera, and emerging technologies. You can learn more at OdinHalvorson.com, or follow Odin on Medium or Twitter @indubitablyodin.