The author's first three novels--City of Illusions, Rocannon's World, and Planet of Exile--are included in an omnibus edition, all set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness, as her characters battle forces in society that seek to tear them apart.
These are only loosely connected (especially the first to the other two), and while there's no particular reason to read them out of order (in this case, chronological and publication orders coincide, and are the order in which the books appear), if you should happen to come across individually published volumes, or if one of the three looks especially interesting, there's no reason you have to read them in order, either.
The first novel, Rocannon's World, is a fairly straightforward quest narrative -- a journey to far-off lands, with companions of various races, to seek an important object. Of course, the various races are different intelligent species on a planet around Fomalhaut (except for Rocannon himself, an anthropologist from another world), and the object of the quest is an ansible with which to send a warning back to other worlds, but that doesn't change the shape of the story any. This isn't one of LeGuin's stronger works, but completists will want to read it, and if you're buying the omnibus anyway you might as well -- it's very short. At least read the prologue, if you haven't already read it as "Semley's Necklace" in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, where it was published separately.
The second novel, Planet of Exile, is the strongest of the three. An abandoned colony on a world with a year as long as a lifetime (predating the Helliconia series by 15 years; I don't know whether this was the first use of the "very long year" idea in SF), slowly losing technology and hope of recontacting the League of All Worlds, allies itself with a group of natives against invading barbarians. This novel is thoughtful and individually focused, with a sense of resignation -- in making this alliance the group is choosing the least bad of a set of options, but the future remains bleak. The alliance is personal as well as political, with a colonist falling in love with a native, despite the prejudices on both sides, against the low-tech natives by the colonists and against a marriage that is assumed to be necessarily childless by the natives.
City of Illusion, the third and longest of the three novels, is set on a far-future Earth, in the aftermath of a war; it seems that the Enemy alluded to in the previous novels, who the colonists in Planet of Exile blame for their abandonment, attacked long ago, and broke up the League of All Worlds. Most of the novel concerns the journey of a (not entirely human) man called Falk. Falk has had his memory wiped and been left in the wilderness; after being found by a small human settlement, he makes a journey across the continent to the alien city of Es Toch (the only city left on the planet) to regain his memory. After a disconnected and episodic journey, Falk reaches Es Toch, where he learns that to regain his old self and old memories, he must irrevokably lose the last six years of his life, since being left in the forest; in effect, he must commit suicide so that his old self can live again. This interesting dilemma is not satisfactorily dealt with, and once Falk makes his decision the book takes a radically different turn.
Overall, these definitely aren't the place to start with LeGuin; they're decidedly minor, and would leave a reader wondering what all the fuss is about. But they're interesting (though Planet of Exile is the only one I'd bother picking up as a separate volume), and definitely worthwhile for LeGuin fans. Seeds of some of her key themes of isolation and being surrounded by strangeness run through all three, and I think the reason I like Planet of Exile the best is that it balances both sides of the strangeness the best of the three; neither the landscape nor the protagonist is set apart as being strange, but there are two sides that are strangers to each other, both of which need to change to survive.
This trilogy is the opening three books of her Hain cycle universe - which contains some of her most famous works, which I've read. These earlier books are far better stories. The gently interlinking themes mark the grand scale of a space opera, but the writing is much more fantasy than some technology based SF.
Rocannon's World open's the trilogy and explains briefly how mankind has spread amoung the stars - many of which are inhabited by huamnoids. This is perhaps the only jarring note in the universe, it's never explained why this should be. the great Law of the League of Worlds is that of Cultural Embargo - civilisations should not be influenced by external technology, and at most can be gently influenced to progress. Hence on an unnamed world around the star Formalhut, the Emissory finds reports of helicopters amidst the traditional pastoral fantasy flying horses and knights somewhat disturbing. When his starship (and only ansible link to the rest of the universe) is destroyed he begisn to wonder whether he has found the Enemy's secret base. A trek through the countryside follows.
World of Exile is set somewhat later, following the war with the Enemy, Werel is cutoff from the greater universe. And it's 24000 day Year means most humans see only a season or two. When Winter falls, savages fleeing the Ice attack. The League of Worlds expedition again barred from high technology tries to teach the natives how to survive, and a romance develops between the people. The shortest but perhaps most poignent story of the three.
The last City of Illusions is an odd tale, and perhaps comes the closet to the more explict social commentry of the later works. It is set on Earth many thousands of years in the future of the other tales. the war with the Enemy is over, and mankind lives subjucated but free, the great law has been replaced with Do Not Kill. There is no League of Worlds, but the survivors of Werel have reinvented spaceflight, and return to earth, but an accident on re-entry leaves our hero berefit of memories and he must find his own way in the strangely segregated new human communities.
Really well written enjoyable tales. Simple problems of humanity isolated but through strength of character overcoming different challenges. Read them.
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The three novels take place thousands of years apart, at pivotal points in the conquest of a galactic empire called the League of All Worlds, which includes Earth, by aliens from a distant galaxy. Each novel also sows the seeds for the future evolution of humanity, which will enable them to defeat their conquerors and establish a new galactic alliance.
***There are some slight spoilers ahead.***
In the first novel, Rocannon's World, a ship from the League of All Worlds is visiting a planet where several intelligent species have been found. The humans are studying the aliens for possible inclusion in the League. One of them is Rocannon, who is staying at the home of one of the natives when his ship and all his shipmates are destroyed by an unknown enemy. Rocannon deduces that this is the Enemy that has been foretold, alien conquerors from a distant galaxy, against which the League has been formed to resist. On his ship was a device called an "ansible," that enabled communication at faster-than-light speeds, with which he could have warned his home planet. He figures that the enemy aliens also has an ansible, and sets out with a few companions, riding big flying cats, on a quest to reach their base in the south of the planet and send the warning so that the secret base may be destroyed. It is a hazardous journey, and along the way, Rocannon encounters natives with telepathic ability, which is called "mindspeak," and which he begins to learn.
The second novel, Planet of Exile, is set thousands of years later on another planet called Werel, which has been colonized by humans from the League planets. They have lost all contact with their home planets and have been stranded on Werel for generations. They have built a walled city on the seaside and holed up there, keeping themselves apart from the intelligent natives, who think they are witches because they can mindspeak and possess technology. Gradually, their numbers have been dwindling, due to the alienness of the planet where they have settled; they are being rejected as a foreign body.
Werel has a very long orbit around its sun, which makes each season last for a lifetime. A person born in fall may never know spring. As Planet of Exile opens, winter is near, and a great wave of people are emigrating south, destroying everything in their path. The colonists join with the nearby natives to resist them. At the same time, the colonists discover that they are adapting to their new environment after all, which means that humanity won't die out on Werel.
The third novel, City of Illusions, was my favorite of the three, although all of them are terrific reads. City of Illusions is set on a future Earth, a thousand years after the time of Planet of Exile. A man wakens in the forest with no memory of who he is or where he came from. He only knows that he looks different from the people who discover him. Gradually, he learns that the few remaining people of Earth live under the rule of a conquering enemy called the Shing; both the people and the Shing practice telepathy. The man sets out on a quest to reach the capital city of the Shing and find out who he is. What he discovers about himself sows the seeds for an eventual rebellion against the conquering aliens. This novel was so compelling and exciting that I really wanted there to be a sequel.
There is not one, really, although the next novel to take place chronologically is Le Guin's most famous science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. But that is set on another planet and after another thousand years or so has passed. Interestingly, her other most famous sci-fi work, The Dispossessed, takes place before Rocannon's World does, just before the ansible is invented, although she wrote and published it much later.
Le Guin's imagined worlds are a fantastic blend of advanced technology and high fantasy, combining faster-than-light space travel, magical powers in the form of telepathy and incredible beasts like the flying cats of Rocannon's World. Her worlds and her people are richly imagined and wonderfully detailed, and her writing is pitch-perfect: fast moving but still philosophical when it needs to be. I have never disliked one of her novels, and the three collected in this volume are no exception to that rule.
The first novella, Rocannon's World, has virtually nothing to do with science fiction, instead being almost entirely a work of fantasy, and not particularly good fantasy at that. Rocannon is something of an anthropological surveyor on behalf of the Hainish League, attempting to establish technologically advanced civilizations in order to present a line of defense against an anticipated invasion from outside the galaxy.
The story presents a collection of life forms which are strikingly similar to Tolkien's elves, dwarves and even classes of men. Again, not particularly original and not very captivating. Two and a half stars.
The final two novellas, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, are really neither fantasy nor science fiction. Each is more about the interaction between intelligent hominid species, and though I was expecting science fiction, I enjoyed these two stories significantly more than the first.
In Planet of Exile, we have three vastly different cultures interacting against a highly unusual planetary climate pattern (unusual from our perspective). The World of Werel contains two native hominid species, the Tevarans, of roughly Iron Age technological proficiency, and the Gaal, more Stone Age in sophistication. Add to these, the Farborn, a much more technologically advanced species (from Earth, as it turns out), which has been on Werel for roughly 600 years. Part of an advance party from the Hainish League, they have ostensibly been exiled, supposedly as a result of a successful galactic invasion by the Shing.
The planet of Werel has a moon phase of 400 days, and an elliptical orbit of 60 moon phases. Thus, each "season" lasts roughly 15-20 years. Our story is set at the onset of Winter and the seasonal migration of the Gaal through Tevaran lands. Always warlike, the Gaal have organized this Winter and are a very real threat to the civilizations of the Tevar and the Farborn. Prejudice, jealousy and distrust mark the relationship between the two species as they attempt to cooperate against their much more numerous and savage opponents. Four stars.
The final novella, City of Illusion, finally introduces us to the Shing, the galactic invaders who threaten the Hainish League. In fact, the setting for this story is the Earth, far in the future, following its conquest by the Shing. We are introduced to Falk, a non-human hominid who finds himself stranded in a forested region of the United States (seemingly near Kentucky), without any memory of his past, only a desire to travel West to the Shing city of Es Toch, where he hopes to learn of his identity and past.
Falk undergoes much hardship and experiences many adventures during his travels through the virtually deserted and depopulated United Sates, which eventually lead to Es Toch (located in southern Utah or northern Arizona). The experiences of Falk upon reaching Es Toch neatly tie up all the loose ends, binding the three novellas together. Four and a half stars.
These final two novellas should be required reading for college level Anthropology majors.
Planet of Exile is probably the weakest of the three - it is an enjoyable read however, and sets up the thrid book:-
City of Illusion is one of the best sci-fi stories I have ever read. Enjoyable and clever, with some of Le Guin's most exquisite prose, it follows a man who knows nothing about himself, on a sparsely populated earth, trying to find out who he is and what happened to him. Again the conclusion is wonderful and beautifully executed.
I would recommend these stories wholeheartedly. Borrow my copy - they're wonderful!
When all the other members of his ethnographic survey are killed, Gaverel Rocannon is stranded on the planet Fomalhaut II. The weapons that were used in the attack could only have come from an alien military faction. To stop them Rocannon must get a message back to the League of All Worlds. But on this planet the only equipment that can span the distance between the stars quickly enough to deliver the message in time could only be located on the enemy’s base. So Rocannon and his hosts from what The Abridged Handy Pocket Guide to Intelligent Life-forms describes as a “clan-descent society,” with a “feudal-heroic culture,” set out on a quest to find and infiltrate the base in the forgotten lands to their south. Will it be swords, lances, and griffins against helicopter gunships and faster than light bombers?
Planet of Exile:
The native girl Rolery, born out of season and impetuous, finds herself strangely attracted to Jakob Agat Altetta, the dark leader of the farborn, even though her people consider the farborn to be inhuman practitioners of witchcraft, and so rude that they would look you directly in the eyes. The attraction is mutual, and it leads to bitter misfortune and near disaster just when the two peoples should unite against a common enemy.
City of Illusions:
Five years ago a man without memory or language stumbled out of the wilds of the forest. At least he had the body of man, but his yellow eyes were like those of a cat. In Zove’s household the family debated what he was and what to do with him. Was he a spy, an agent of their enemy the Shing, or possibly an alien, even though, “No being from the Other Worlds that once were know has walked on Earth for twelve hundred years.” They let him live and learn, and now he’s about to journey across a continent to the city of the Shing, the masters of the “mind-lie” that defeated the League of All Worlds and enslaved humanity, to uncover the truth about himself.
These first three of Le Guin’s science fiction novels were published in 1966 and 1967. Each is set on a different planet. The backstory to all three stories, each set about a millennium apart, is the rise and fall of an interstellar human, or perhaps humanoid civilization. During this time humanity gains and develops the skill of telepathy. More in the forefront of the stories is the clash between cultures, the interstellar and the native, and in final one, City of Illusions, between human and the truly alien.
The three, taken together as in this edition, are two heroic quests framing a siege. If all this sounds more like the themes found in heroic fantasy rather than in science fiction to you, you have the author’s agreement. Eleven years after its first publication, in an introduction to the 1977 edition of Rocannon's World (reproduced in The Language of the Night, the author writes, "...of course fantasy and science fiction are different, just as red and blue ; different; they have different frequencies; if you mix them (on paper—I work on paper) you get purple, something else again. Rocannon's World is definitely purple."