Ursula Le Guin


A stand alone science fiction book.

Publication year: 1966
Format: Print, a Finnish translation
Page count: 180
The translation’s publisher: BTJ Finland Ltd
Translator: Jyrki Iivonen
Publication year of the translation: 2010

The book is set in LeGuin’s science fiction world called the Hainish Cycle but has only a couple of references to the larger universe. In fact, the story structure resembles epic fantasy more than SF.

The book starts with rather long prologue “Semley’s Necklace”. It sets the mood and the world well. Semley lives in a world, Fomalhaut II, which is technologically the equivalent of a Bronze Age. Yet, her culture and the cultures and races around her, have made contact with a space faring culture whom they call the Star Lords. Even though Semley is the wife of the local ruler, she sees all the time how poor they are. She remembers that her family used to have a very valuable heirloom, a necklace, which was stolen or lost years ago. However, she’s been told that the Clayfolk would know where the necklace is. One night, she takes her husband’s windsteed and sets out to find the necklace. However, the necklace has been given to the Star Lords and Semly has to journey to another planet to get it. While the journey feels like a one long night to her, because of the time dilation effect, several years has passed in her home before she returns.

The main story focuses on Rocannon who is an ethnologist from the League of All Worlds. He’s a middle aged man who has been on several planets. He’s started to question the League’s right to descend on other worlds and tax them in order to continue their war. The story starts when Rocannon is with the local ruler in Hallen. The rest of his team has been scattered around the planet doing research but they have now gathered to the star ship. The enemy destroys the ship and Rocannon is left alone on an alien world. He also finds out that the enemies have destroyed a local village of the Fiia. Rocannon is convinced that the enemy must have a base on this world because his ship and the Fiia village wer destroyed by a short range helicopter, so he sets out to find that base. He hopes to use their ansibel radio to alert the League. However, he has to journey by traditional means: by foot, on sea, and through air.

The local lord Mogien, the sole surving Fiia from the Fiia village, and three servants accompany Rocannon on the way to another continent. They journey through hostile lands and encounter a few friends as well. Most of the time they fly on the backs of windsteed which are cat-like flying beasts. They’re living creatures which must be allowed to rest and eat, and they’re sometimes moody, too.

Sembly in the first story is from the city of Hallan and she’s lord Mogien’s grandmother. Rocannon was one of the two Star Lords she encountered during her journey, and the necklace plays a part in Rocannon’s story. So, the prologue isn’t a separate story.

The background to the story is rooted in SF with the space faring cultures and a war but many elements in the story itself feel like fantasy. Rocannon isn’t a traditional fantasy hero but he goes on a hero’s quest with a trusty group of friends. The culture in Hallan is feudal with clear lords and servants, and an honor system where death is preferred before dishonor. All the characters on the quest are male and the rulers seem to be male, as well.

Clayfolk live underground and resemble dwarfs somewhat. The Fiia are a more interesting race; they seem to be telepathic and discuss among themselves only telepathically but don’t do so with others. They don’t mingle with the other races. There’s also a prophecy about a Wanderer who would choose his companions but this isn’t explained more. The characters quickly become legendary figures. Sembly is already a legend when Rocannon’s story starts.

The prologue contains two scientific excerpts which describe the intelligent races and the planet. Most of the races are described as “human” and one of the background facts is that space has so many inhabited worlds, presumably by human like species, that they are like grains of sand on the beach. Yet, humans can’t survive faster than light travel so exploration takes many years. That’s why Rocannon can’t just wait for rescue. He says that it would take eight years for anyone else to come to the planet. Perhaps the strongest SF element in the story is Rocannon’s impermasuit which is skintight, not visible, and allows him to withstand violence and extreme temperatures. Except that sometimes he doesn’t use the helmet and can be knocked out when the plot demands it. I found that pretty cheesy.

The plot centers on the journey through the different lands and the different people the group encounters. Because the book is so short, the characters remain quite flat and stereotypical. Rocannon is a somewhat nervous outsider, Mogien is a brash young lord who follows the letter of the honor system, and two servant’s aren’t talked about much at all. The exception is Yahan, a young servant boy who emerges as quite a heroic figure.

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Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
Tachyon Publishing was kind enough to give me a copy to review.

This short story collection has a very impressive collection of authors from Alfred Bester to Roger Zelazny and I was pleased to be able to sample many writers I haven’t read before and, of course, read stories from some of my favorite authors. All of the stories are good and these are the ones that impressed me the most:

Ray Bradbury: All Summer in a Day. A story about Venus where the rain stops and the sun comes out only for one hour in every seven years.

Theodore Sturgeon: A Touch of Strange. About humans and their not-quite-human lovers.

William Tenn: Eastward Ho! A story set in a post-apocalyptic US where the power balance of the white people and Indians has turned over its ear. One white man is sent as an envoy to an powerful Indian chief.

Philip K. Dick: The Electric Ant. Where Garson Poole, the owner of a powerful company, finds out that he’s not human. Then he tries to find out the true nature of reality.

Karen Joy Fowler: The Dark. This one feels like an excellent X-Files episode. Strange things have been happening to people who go to the Yosemite National Park. Keith Harmon is sent to the park to look for a possible plague spot and he founds out much more than he bargained for.

Ursula K. LeGuin: Solitude. An interstellar anthropologist brings her two children with her, when she tries to study a strange and primitive culture where humans don’t seem to form communities.

Peter S. Beagle: Two Hearts. When a griffin starts to plague a village, one young girl decides to take the matter to the King personally. Anyone who has read the Last Unicorn will encounter some very familiar people here.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger. The first part of the first book of the Dark Tower -series.

A throughly enjoyable collection!

I really liked the Dispossessed. It’s a non-linear book about a scientist called Shevek and the worlds he lives in. At the start of the book, he is transported from Anarres to Urras and a lot of people on Anarres are mad about that. Anarres is a gender-equal anarchist planet that hasn’t got a central government. In theory, anyone could do any job anytime. In practice, it’s more complicated than that (isn’t it always?). Nobody owns anything and even the need to own something is seen as bad. Urras is pretty close to our own world with the owners and the owned, the have-lots and have-almost-nothings, and women are seen as not as intelligent as men.

Anarras is pretty isolated place without much contact to any other planets. The only things that they know about Urras come from a few propaganda films which were made when the anarchists were exiled to their planet 150 years ago. Shevek is a brilliant scientist and he wants to know more about Urras and even about other planets. He is invited to Urras by one of the biggest governments on the planet and expects eagerly to be able to talk with other scientists. However, things on Urras are very different from what he has lived with and somewhat different from the propaganda films, too.

The book is structured so that every other chapter deals with Shevek on Urras and every other is a flashback to his youth and life on Anarras. The chapters have thematic similarities as well to each other. The plot moves fairly slowly but there’s a lot to absorb and learn about the planets and to think about, so a faster plot would have been a disservice to the themes and structure of the book.

Le Guin doesn’t give any easy answers or any answers at all. Neither of the systems are shown as clearly superior. Each are just as confining in their own ways but differently. While the Anarrians don’t acknowledge marriage and some of them even disapprove of committed pair-bonding, on Urras the only way that at least upper class women are able to survive is with a marriage to a (wealthy) man. People on both systems can be frustrated but for different reasons. Not owning enough or not owing the right things vs. need to know the right people and belong to the right groups.

Anarres’ people are shown to be more community oriented but then the disapproval of the community is shown to be just as effective as laws on Urras. When you must depend on other people for your very survival, the approval of those people is, indeed, very important. The employees on Urras depend on their employers’ approval in much the same way.

In the end I think that the societies on Anarras and Urras are too different. I don’t think that someone who grew up on one place could be really happy on the other. The limitations on either are just too severe.