In Victoria on a former prison colony, two exiled groups--the farmers of Shantih and the City dwellers--live in apparent harmony. All is not as it seems, however. While the peace-loving farmers labor endlessly to provide food for the City, the City Bosses rule the Shantih with an iron fist. When a group of farmers decide to from a new settlement further away, the Bosses retaliate by threatening to crush the "rebellion." Luz understands what it means to have no choices. Her father is a Boss and he has ruled over her life with the same iron fist. Luz wonders what it might be like to make her own choices. To be free to choose her "own" destiny. When the crisis over the new settlement reaches a flash point, Luz will have her chance.
The Eye of the Heron is a short novel that was originally published in the collection Millennial Women, edited by Virginia Kidd. A straightforward story that reads like a fable, The Eye of the Heron is set on the alien planet of Victoria, where there are two groups of settlers: the farmers of the village of Shantih and the wealthier City inhabitants. The rest of the planet is uninhabited except by strange animals, including the long-legged, elegant, gray creatures called “herons” because of their resemblance to the bird, who gaze on the humans’ activities impassively; and the small, funny shape shifters called “wotsits,” who die in captivity but will sometimes alight on a person’s hand.
The book opens and closes with a person watching a wotsit change shape and color in his palm before flying away. These two framing incidents are both hopeful, representing a brief communion between the human and his new world. In fact, The Eye of the Heron could be classified as fantasy, if we did not know that both groups of settlers came to the planet on spaceships, exiles from a future Earth. The City dwellers were descended from prisoners, while the people of Shantih were leaders of a movement called the People of the Peace, a nonviolence movement that had gained too many adherents back on Earth. The brief glimpses of Earth’s future history, as related in the tales of the exiles’ descendants, add some layers of complexity to this otherwise straightforward tale.
Lev, the young leader of the Villagers, is returning home with a scouting party when the story opens. The Villagers have found a location for a new settlement, but the City Council won’t let them go, not wanting to lose their supply of low-paid workers and farmers. The People of the Peace respond with nonviolent civil disobedience, and several of them are arrested. One of the older leaders, Vera, is imprisoned in a Councilor’s house, where she begins to influence the Councilor’s daughter, Luz.
Luz, learning that her father has recruited an army of brutish young men to enslave the Villagers, flees her home to warn Lev and the others. Once there, she chooses to stay, a decision that drives her father and her suitor back in the City to irrational action. Luz tries to talk Lev into simply leaving Shantih, but he insists on following his people’s nonviolent ideals, which leads to tragedy. After things return to normal, though, Luz’s arguments eventually win over some of the Villagers, and she takes a group on an expedition to found a new home as the story ends.
Though unambiguous and very short, The Eye of the Heron explores many interesting ideas. The People of the Peace believe strongly that each individual makes his or her own choices, and the choices that the settlers make after being stranded on an alien planet — after being given a clean slate, in effect — are of interest to Le Guin. Do they wall themselves off in the City and attempt to control the uncontrollable? Do they hold on to the ways of Earth and refuse to adapt, even when it might mean their deaths? Or do they embrace their circumstances and make this planet their new home, adapting to it? Le Guin explores all of these choices, but clearly, it is the last one that holds the most promise at the end. I wouldn’t say that this is Le Guin’s best work, but it is certainly enjoyable and thought-provoking.
This is a largely philosophical novel, though not completely lacking in action. I would have liked for it to have gone on longer and explored the aftermath of the conflict’s “resolution.”
I have been reading a lot of LeGuin lately, and it seems to me that she enjoys creating a complex society of peaceful people and then putting them in situations where their values are tested. I wonder if she is doing serial thought experiments, trying to come up with a possible utopian society. It’s interesting to think about because all of her peaceful societies have some values in common, but different structures. It’s endlessly fascinating to me, but I can see how some might get bored of reading them in succession.
It is interesting because it is a story of the failure of ideals. A culture which defines itself by its non-violence comes into violent conflict with its adversary culture. In her earlier books the good usually triumphs over the bad but here the end result seems closer to defeat than to victory.
As usual with LeGuin there are a few excellent feminist observations, typically brief and integral to the plot.