At the far end of our universe, on the twin planets of Werel and Yeowe, all humankind is divided into "assets" and "owners," tradition and liberation are at war, and freedom takes many forms. Here is a society as complex and troubled as any on our world, peopled with unforgettable characters struggling to become fully human. For the disgraced revolutionary Abberkam, the callow "space brat" Solly, the haughty soldier Teyeo, and the Ekumen historian and Hainish exile Havzhiva, freedom and duty both begin in the heart, and success as well as failure has its costs. In this stunning collection of four intimately interconnected novellas, Ursula K. Le Guin returns to the great themes that have made her one of America's most honored and respected authors.
Set on neighboring planets, Werel and Yeowe, this collection of four novellas is a study of relationships: between a man and a woman, between men and women, between enslavers and enslaved, between natives and foreigners. As we read these stories--which, at their cores, are all love stories--we learn the history of a civilization that mirrors our own in uncomfortable ways. Le Guin has structured this book perfectly, beginning with a slow and subtle introduction to this society and gradually building to an emotional crescendo.
The first two novellas could be paired with each other, as could the last two. In each of the first two stories, an unlikely relationship forms between a man and a woman. Thrown together by circumstance, they move past their initial assumptions and prejudices, and first see, then come to love, the other. The first story, Betrayals, is quiet, reminiscent, and almost elegiac in its tone, told from the point of view of an older woman in self-exile who believes that her life is essentially over when she rediscovers love. Only a bit of Yeowe's turbulent history is revealed; once a planet of slaves, there was a long and violent revolutionary war, and the planet's inhabitants dispelled their enslavers back to Werel and won their independence. In the second story, Forgiveness Day, more is revealed about these two planets' societies, particularly the strict separation of men and women and general oppression of women on Werel. An envoy from the federation of planets called the Ekumen, a young woman, arrives on Werel and shocks her bodyguard, a former soldier, with her behavior. But when they are kidnapped together, they come to know each other as people and, eventually, to accept each other on equal terms.
The second two novellas are also a pair, more closely related. A Man of the People tells the story of another Ekumen envoy, providing a rare glimpse of life on Hain, where he is from, and how historians are trained. Once he arrives on Yeowe, he becomes aware of the societal oppression of women and is drawn into the women's liberation movement, which he subtly affects as he can from his position as an influential outsider. The final story, "A Woman's Liberation," is the most powerful and emotionally wrenching of the four. Le Guin reveals without flinching the brutal history of these two planets, as experienced by one woman, who is first a slave, then liberated, then enslaved again as a "use woman," a sexual slave, then escapes to Yeowe, where she thinks she will be free. There she finds a still total oppression of women, and she eventually joins the underground liberation movement, where she meets the Hainish envoy. As their love grows, she is able to let go of her past, to forgive herself and her people for their history. She is able to fully become who she is meant to be, to help bring about true liberation and document the history so the past won't be repeated. And she is able to love, as an equal. This was such a powerful, moving piece of writing that I can't do it justice in describing it.
For those longtime fans of Le Guin's science fiction, this collection has an added bonus: a supplemental brief history of Hain, a tantalizing society that we have before only glimpsed in her work, and the history of the Ekumen. This is a book I am sure I will return to again and again, the product of a great (and underappreciated) writer at the height of her abilities.
I love LeGuin's writing and often agree with her statements, but find her somewhat unclassifiable because I feel an underlying inconsistency in her positions ("you can't get this result with that premise" sort of thing).
Style: Lyric and emotional, but marred by a habit of introducing a new pov without specifying which character is "speaking" until some ways into the narration.
What is the purpose in "translating" some of the alien names, but not all of them? Euphonics?
How does the Ekumen keep its affairs co-ordinated with relativistic space travel (she doesn't mention the ansible here; I guess it's assumed by this point in her career).
See notes on cultural stability - implausible in light of Earth history.
p. 129: deliberate reversal of typical male / female roles and occupations; however, there is precedent in the Earth Pueblo cultures, which are emulated here.
p. 138: How do you keep a culture stable for 2000+ years?? (see p. 145)
p. 152: Bigotry is not actually compatible with the culture as described. Where is the action of the Peter Principle in this bureaucracy of historians?
p. 161: A women's rebellion is as old as the Greeks; is it at all plausible? cf. MADD, the South American mothers of the "disappeared", female reaction to Hitler's euthanasia policies for retarded children (not counting the Jews); but in contrast, see the recent "Arab Spring" occurrences where men ignored or assaulted women, and the historyof the American Left.
p. 167: Aren't they imposing Hainish rules and roles?
p. 192: "change the soul to change the world" is a valid concept; the seed of Christianity.
p. 231: "Freedom is made, not given" - true.
p. 238: "How you teach children is important" (so, does she approve of our current education policies or not?)
p. 242: freedom for men is not the same as freedom for women (see her autobiography)
p. 251: poor physics; you can't do mass space travel like the hold of a sailing ship
p. 265: control of the media trumps education
p. 274: philosophical question -what constitutes subversion? is it sometimes justified?
p. 280: a discussion of keys and doors, as symbols of relationship
p. 285: No Earth society ever lasted 3000 years, or became so monolithic; why should Werel's?
The first story is set on Yeowe following their War of Liberation and features an old woman and her relationship with a former Chief of the revolution. This story seems mostly to serve as exposition and a commentary on how elders are treated in the burgeoning free era.
Next, we follow an Ekumenical sub-envoy and her struggles with the extremely misogynistic practices in place on Werel. She is trying to bring enlightenment and is treated alternately like a man and a precocious child, but just wants to be seen as an independent woman. This is difficult for the Werelians to deal with.
The third story begins on Hain, which is nice because of all the talk so far in this series of the Hainish and the Ekumen having originated there, none of the action has ever been set there. It is interesting to note that there are still some “backwards” and “rural” areas of Hain. It is not the enlightened utopia I had come to think of judging by its description and the characters in other books who are from there. The narrator of this tale begins life in a rural area and grows to be an Envoy to Werel. His early life and training period are quite interesting and his adventures on Werel serve to tie some threads together from the first two stories.
This Envoy will also appear in our fourth story, which is presented as a memoir of a woman who is born in slavery on Werel, but because of some very fortunate events is able to participate in a Werelian slave-revolt, learn to read, write and teach, and finally end up on Yeowe helping to continue the revolution and enlightenment there.
The themes throughout are, of course, forgiveness, as well as how two people from different walks of life can find love together. Each of these stories features a set of very unlikely lovers, often of different planets of origin, who find common ground. This could be applied as a metaphor for mixed-race relations here in America (or even on Planet Earth). The other main theme is feminism. The revolution on Yeowe originated in the women’s camp, but after liberation, women are still treated as property, often with less power than they had as slaves. The message seems to be that many men need to have someone to oppress in order to feel powerful, even if they have been oppressed themselves and know how that feels. Of course, as the society grows and becomes more “civilized” the genders need to be treated more equally. This is also a comment on Earthly societal norms.
LeGuin has long been a pioneer of feminist science fiction. She is adept at spinning an engaging tale that stands alone on its own merit, as well as presenting an underlying message that is almost sneaky in the way it inhabits the readers mind and (hopefully!) transforms the reader’s attitudes on the subject.