I embarked on this epic re-read after word of Ursula Le Guin’s death came down, and in the throes of that loss. It seemed like the best way I knew how to honor someone so completely unique, someone whose passing into legend was going to leave such a huge hole here in the ranks of those of us still living. I would not presume to have called her ‘friend’, but I did have the opportunity to meet her and speak with her on a number of occasions and count myself fortunate to have done so. And so, in the spirit of that, by way of goodbye to the woman of flesh and blood who once walked amongst us and a greeting to the larger-than-life Name that she was already in the process of becoming, I sat down with the Hainish novels of Ursula Le Guin.I looked up the list of Hainish books, and I came up with this suggestion:
Rocannon’s World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusions (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
The Disposessed (1974)
The Word for World is Forest (1972)
The Telling (2000)
I’m not sure why this was given as any kind of order because it isn’t strictly in terms of length (the first three slim novels are almost novellas, and The Word for World is Forest openly won its awards as one), or publication order (the first three works on the list are squished into the space of two years, followed by The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, and then The Disposessed (1974) and The Word for World is Forest (1972) are actually transposed in terms of publication dates, followed by The Telling in 2000 which is a new Hainish novel arriving a full 26 years after the previous one bearing that watermark, with only a number of Hainish short stories holding the line in this interregnum), or internal story chronology (in terms of that, loosely, the timeline would have to be The Disposessed > The Word for World is Forest > Rocannon’s World > Planet of Exile > City of Illusions > The Left Hand of Darkness > The Telling, with the earliest stories predating the formation of any sort of actual union of known worlds with the ansible still just a possibility and not a reality, and then progressing through the formation of a League of All Worlds and the use of the ansible as an accepted reality, the disintegration of that union in the face of the aliens-who-tell-lies known as the Shing (from beyond the League), and the reunification of the erstwhile league as the Ekumen which is portrayed as initiating new worlds into the union (like, for instance, the Gethenians from The Left Hand of Darkness).
Le Guin herself wrote on her website that these works weren’t conceived as a cycle, or a saga, or a coherent and chronological series of events. “They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones,” she said.
So, really, it isn’t an issue what order they’re read in. But they do fall into groups, for me. And so this re-read is going to be a Thing of Three Parts, using (in the end) the list as I had it above, no matter how arbitrary it turns out to be. And the First Part would have to be the 1966/67 books, although I have to admit to being incomplete. I thought I had them all – but in the end I find that I lacked a copy of Planet of Exile and so this initial look at the Hainish books ends up resting on Rocannon’s World and City of Illusions.
Did I know that the story of Semley and her necklace formed the prologue of Rocannon’s World? If I knew, I had forgotten. Of course the thing belonged there – and in fact I had re-read that story only recently, in a fat volume of Le Guin’s collected short stories. Finding it here, in the front of the (very slim) Ace paperback edition of Rocannon’s World, was almost like grabbing at a familiar handhold before I started climbing this particular story tree. But that story, and this entire novel (or novella) is definitely of its time (and I have to confess I didn’t realise that the first Hainish roots were that far in the past. I mean, good grief, I was literally three years old when this book was first published…) And City of Illusions is very much of the same ilk (and therefore I suppose the book I am missing here, Planet of Exile, being the backstory to City of Illusions and belonging to this particular closely clustered series of works, must be of a like nature). And what it feels like – given what I now know of all the other Le Guin works I’ve read since – is like I’m walking along an older corridor in a vast and grand mansion, and I am pausing to open a window here and there and peer outside.
Both Rocannon’s World and City of Illusions are “quest” books, journeys, and as such they are exercises in worldbuilding, as we travel through the respective worlds in the company of various groups of entities who are a mix of Hainish “colonizer” races and possibly genetically engineered natives of the colonized worlds themselves. It is – in its own way – a joy, because Ursula Le Guin is a goddess of worldbuilding, it comes as naturally as breathing, you just dive into the worlds she creates and they close above your head like water and you don’t remember ever living in any other reality while you’re captive in hers. She writes of the alien Rocannon’s World, or of wrecked and conquered Terra, in the same breathless and inspired wise and we follow, those of us reading these tales, looking around at all the things that are growing, rooting, running, flying, killing and eating all around us. But although it is immersive – as Le Guin cannot fail to be – it’s also static, like watching the whole thing unfold while you yourself aren’t directly a part of it all or feel particularly close to, or fond of, the protagonists. It’s a high-tech Disney ride of the Hainish novels, with all the sensurround experiences they can stuff into it but in the end you are still not an organic part of it, and you leave the ride changed by it but not a part of it. These are good, competent, beautifully word-painted works – but in the approximately 130,000 words of these two novels there isn’t all that much that is eminently quotable, or even memorable other than just in the context of “that was a decent read”. We are still just looking through the window at some more or less familiar-looking creatures travelling through some interesting settings. But we don’t necessarily step out to join them. We are observers. What we are watching is at a remove, something that happened to someone, somewhere. It isn’t until after we leave these books behind us that the real power wakes.
These essays first appeared on my Patreon.