Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Rocannon's World" by Ursula Le Guin

Author: Ursula Le Guin
Title: "Rocannon's World"
Pages: 134

Publisher: Ace (1966)

As it would seem the Bulgarian reprint of Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” is a collection of most of the novels from the Hainish cycle. I came across this, while researching the matter, while I was still reading the book and since I finished two of the novels compressed in the first volume I felt like reviewing them separately.

“Rocannon’s World” is not only the opening of the first volume, but is Ursula’s debut as well back in 1966, which for me is the time, when sci-fi as a genre picked up and developed. A fairly short read at the mere 136 pages the plot is very simple, but the story remains sophisticated without troubling the readers mind so much, a trait I admire in Ursula’s writing, clearly demonstrated in her Earthsea novels, which have earned their stature as irreplaceable in my heart.

The protagonist of this tale is the ethnologist Rocannon, who is doing some research for the League of Worlds on the nameless planet simply labeled as Fomalhaut II, which is inhabited by three intelligent races. The Gdemiar resemble Earth’s dwarves by living in cave colonies and displaying wordsmith mastery and their own grip over technology, which has been taught by the league. The Fiia are the friendly gnomes that share a constant telepathic connection among their kind. The Liuar are taller than normal humans, Rocannon being one, and are a race of wars and honor and are divided into two subspecies: the taller blond families are the royalty, while the shorter brunette families are treated as servants.

Interesting to note is that the prologue to this novel “Semley’s Necklace” has been a short story published as a standalone. Semley is a young woman from a royal family, who in search to reclaim her clan’s pride undergoes a space journey to return her family’s heirloom, a blue sapphire necklace, only to find that she returns one generation later with her daughter grown and her husband dead, rendering her efforts pointless.

The great introduction shows a great deal of the worldbuilding in Fomalhaut II, which is still in the Bronze Era, and introduces the characters. Rocannon arrives on the primitive world with a party to determine, whether the planet is inhabited by the army of Faradey, a world, which engages in intergalactic wars and uses primitive worlds as bases. Considering everyone from the party, plus their means of transport, being obliterated by a laze beam and the news of many cataclysmic fires spreading on the planet, the answer is pretty positive.

So Rocannon embarks on an epic journey to find the enemy base and use their communication systems to warn the League. His companion is Mogien, one of the blond Liuar, royalty and grandson of Semley. Considering the lack of technology the story resembles a Tolkinesque plot with a part consisting of different races: Rocannon, Mogien and his servants are joined by the sole Fiia, who survived a slaughtering of his village. To top it off, this Fiia speaks of a prophecy, which involves Rocannon and the sapphire necklace, which basically gets him in lot of trouble, almost costing his life.

In his travels the brave ethnologist earns the reputation of a god status being, because of his special protective suit, which saved him from being cooked and eaten. Rocannon also encounters with two other races that are rumored to inhabit the planet, which are left unnamed. The first race consists of tall angelic creatures with big wings, which are blind and deaf. They serve as the antagonists as their agenda is feeding on the traveling party by sucking their life juices. The second race is supposedly the ancestors of both the Gdemiar and Fiia before they split up and evolved. From them Rocannon learns the art of telepathy. In a very interesting solo spy mission Rocannon achieves his mission and waits for the rescuing team to come get him after the enemy has been obliterated as well. However traveling to him takes too much time and Rocannon dies of age, while waiting for his rescue. As a consolation prize Fomalhaut II is named Rocannon.

The prologue Semley's Necklace begins like this:

"How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away? - planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god."

Apart from being thought provocative, full of depth and simply brilliant, these starting sentences carry the spirit and are at the base of “Rocannon’s World”, “Planet of Exiles” and probably the whole Hainish cycle. There is this blend of past and future, fantasy and sci-fi, facts and myths and the experience of watching a single object or action reflected in absolutely polar perceptions is quite unique. Seeing how humans used to think that lightning was created by gods, how objects like a clock and a gun were magical to human tribes in the uncultivated parts of Earth, we are left wondering whether our mythology doesn’t have a quite believable explanation. One of the leading motifs is that truth is subjective and it depends on the beholder, a fact that has been established in history.

If you are looking for a very short read for the weekend, which packs a decent doze of action and still manages to flex your brain, then by all means check out “Rocannon’s World”.


Dark Wolf said...

This is a nice story, but I love more "The Left Hand of Darkness".

daydream said...

Hopeffuly, volume two will contain the actual "Left Hand of Darkness". I read it's the hot stuff in sci-fi.

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