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.