Treading Old Journeys Anew: Review of Worlds of Exile and Illusion by Ursula K. Le Guin
Frank Rudiger Lopes
Worlds of Exile and Illlusion. Ursula K. Le Guin. Tor Books, March 2022.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s work is always worth visiting and revisiting, from her famous The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness to earlier pieces such as those contained in this edition. With an inviting introduction by Amal El-Mohtar, Worlds of Exile and Illusion encourages us to look at the three novels of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exiles, and City of Illusions with kind eyes: to examine the themes Le Guin would work with again or reinvent in her later fiction, but also to learn what is novel about these particular titles. We see this in the first of the novels with a man of advanced technology and communication abilities, stranded in a bronze age world; in the second, a people of a future era, exiled in a similar world, struggling to both connect and survive; finally, in the third, a being seeking answers to a lost past in the capital of the conquerors of a world.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of these early novels, however, is how many elements are already present that would continue to be important to Le Guin’s later work. Communication, for a start: how do peoples, cultures, and species connect, learn and exchange with one another? That ongoing process, its challenges, limitations, successes, and failures become key to her work. Communication, whether it is for the survival of a whole society or for an individual’s needs, comes up in The Dispossessed with the creation of the ansible, and in The Left Hand of Darkness as the people of the planet of Winter receive an invitation to join the interplanetary alliance of the Ekumen. Communication is a theme in SF at large, but in Le Guin’s work, even early on, it is fundamental, and is perhaps the key to how she can write of alien cultures and species, along with their interactions with humanity, beyond simple all-out war.
Therein lies another point in her work, one already present in these three novels: the dynamics between the individual and the societal. All the novels here feature outsiders and those that, for one reason or another, don’t or can’t fit in. Her writing allows a glimpse into the workings of a society by focusing on those on its fringes, or those that have been purposefully marginalized. Le Guin makes an effort to represent different societies neither in purely positive, nor in purely negative ways, but capturing their achievements and flaws alike, especially in the midst of internal clashes and large-scale changes. In Le Guin’s work, a society is made up of complex individuals, who have different reasonings and motives, where there is no “correct” attitude, where the “good” is not absolute.
There is no societal “mass” generically representing all people, but ongoing struggle leading to argument, opposition and even conflict. There is the understanding that in society, there is always tension between the one and the many. Le Guin’s work demonstrates how conflict can be represented, and better yet, how it can be resolved, even with imperfect solutions. In LeGuin’s work, we see how one can write different cultures and their conflicts without simplifying them or classifying them as better or worse societies, but by examining the different opinions and positions of individuals as they all try to do their best for themselves.
There are, it’s important to mention, representational issues with women in the novels, especially in Planet of Exiles and City of Illusions. In these works, they are not particularly varied, fulfilling a simple role and not given the same attention or complexity as that of the men in these stories. There are hints that they might be deeper than they appear, but we do not go further. Such treatment greatly improves throughout Le Guin’s corpus, which might, perhaps, show us some of the necessary discovery and learning that Le Guin herself had to do.
The brief encounters with women in Rocannon’s World, though, do indicate that these characters can do a lot in their own right. The woman Semley, for example, embarks on a quest of her own accord and follows it through with caution and wit. While she does so for her marriage, she still displays an autonomy and power quite uncommon in these collected works. Still, there is distinct growth and understanding between these three novels and a story such as The Day Before the Revolution.
Finally, I cannot but mention the precious value of life, all life, already present in Le Guin’s work. While not quite to the same level of non-violent resistance and pacifism that will be distinctive in The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, these early novels already treat violence as a problematic stance and action. To quote from a character in the City of Illusions’ first chapter: “Death is a false mercy”. That is not to say that there is no violence or bloodshed in the stories—there is quite a bit—but not in an unexamined sense. What does it mean to take a life? What is the value of life? These questions are present throughout her stories, and are already being asked in these early works. Compare the quote from City of Illusions with Shevek’s formulation in The Dispossessed: “Weigh it [his scientific theory] in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit (…) and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.”
As with all great works and authors, it is impossible to be exhaustive, especially in such a short space. What I intended here was to present some aspects of these “Worlds of Illusion and Exile” that are worth thinking about, topics important enough to Le Guin to revisit throughout her later stories. There are important reasons to read or reread these novels—as part of Le Guin’s entire body of work, but also on their own merits. Worlds of Illusion and Exile exhibits some of her most important themes—perhaps rather limited, still in their infancy—and offers us the distinct joy of complexities, challenges, and ideas that ask us to think and explore.
Frank Rudiger Lopes is a historian and Brazilian MA student on utopias and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. They’re also a podcaster on literature, history and politics in The Left Page, and occasional fiction writer when time allows. You can find them on Twitter.
This title was offered to ARB by Tor and listed as available to review; the review was commissioned by an emailed pitch. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. The author and editors were not acquainted prior to this review. ARB arranged a review copy.