Ursula K Le Guin, Planet of Exile (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #2

Planet of Exile, the second in Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy, is a significant improvement on the first, Rocannon’s World. The story is much more coherent, the world wonderfully drawn, and the characters far better developed than in the first novel. Planet of Exile is actually one of my favourite books by Le Guin; it’s a beautiful, evocative and, at times, frightening story.

Set at the beginning of winter on a planet in which seasons last 5000 days (around fourteen earth years), Rolery, a young woman from an indiginous hunter-gatherer tribe, visits the city of Landin, a place inhabited by aliens who came to her world hundreds of years ago. They keep themselves apart and are known by her people as the Farborns. While walking on the beach below the city, Rolery is almost caught by a fast moving tide and only escapes because one of the Farborns, Jakob Agat, warns her telepathically using mindspeech, inadvertently creating a bond between them.

I just love the opening. It’s so atmospheric with its images of the giant causeway leading out to the tower rock and the roaring of the tide as it chases Rolery back towards the city and Jakob.

Planet of Exile further develops one of Le Guin’s Hainish tropes, ‘Mindspeech’, a form of telepathy which first appears in Rocannon’s World – it becomes apparent that the ‘Farborn’ are the descendents of Semley and Mogian’s people from that novel. Mindspeech seems to be something that most people can develop with practice, but some have a natural aptitude, including Rolery, much to the surprise of the people of Landin who believe only they have the skill.

Planet of Exile is about the relationship between Rolery and Jakob and the relationship between their two peoples, as they prepare for the long winter and face a common enemy, the aggressive Gaal from the South who are coming in vast numbers to invade their lands and take their resources.

The Farborn are a dwindling people, their colony abandoned centuries ago by the League of All Worlds. They don’t know why they have been left in this exile, ‘Their records say only that the ship left. A white spear of metal, longer than a whole city, standing on a feather of fire.’ Now fewer children are born every year, so they turn to the Askatevar for help.

Jakob Agat goes to the chief of Rolery’s people, her father, an old man named Wold, to propose an alliance against the Gaal. Wold listens, but he must convince his own people and the other tribes which will be difficult. Jakob, meanwhile, struggles with the attitudes of his own people who look down on the Askatevarans. Neither really regard the other as ‘human’. Cultural tensions are inflamed by a burgeoning romance between Rolery and Jakob. Before they can heal the divide, the Gaal attack and the surviving Askatevarans take refuge in the city of Landin where both peoples must get over their prejudices and preconceptions and work together as they prepare for siege. The representation of the people of Tevar is deeply imbibed by Le Guin’s interest in anthropology, perhaps so much as to feel a bit unsubtle now.

There is a theme in the book of old ways dying out so that something new can emerge. This is symbolised in the two old leaders, Alla Pasfal in Landin and the old chief Wold in Tevar. Both are stubborn and difficult people and Wold’s attitudes are misogynist, but there is something powerfully moving in his ‘last foray’ as he leads the women with young children across the causeway to the league hall, ‘across the vasty dizzy air-road to the black and terrible house’.

‘To die, then, he must return across the bleak, changeless landscape of his boyhood, he must reenter the white world of the storms.’

The middle section of the book is a long seige of the city which Le Guin manages to make tense and exciting, but perhaps most frightening is the introduction of the Snow Ghouls, terrifying creatues of the winter with their small heads swaying on their long, curving necks as they run across the snow towards their prey.

During this time, Rolery and Jakob establish their relationship as two people who have found freedom in their very differences. Separate, they were frustrated and unhappy with their roles in life, but together they have joy and possiblity. I really like the representation of their love story and, if I have a complaint, I wish Le Guin had given it more time. The novel ends with Jakob and Rolery hopeful that they will be able to have children together, even as they face the daunting prospect of winter: ‘Five thousand nights of winter, five thousand days of it, the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives’.

In some ways, Planet of Exile feels like the precursor to The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an even longer winter, a deep relationship between two people from different worlds and has mindspeech as a central trope. But Planet of Exile is its own book too, one in which we see Le Guin really starting to play to her strengths as a writer of science fiction.

This post is the second in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time (2015)

In the far distant future, Dr Avrana Kern is about to realise her dream of observing the evolution of sentience in a species.  She’s found the perfect planet, has developed a special sentience virus and acquired a shipload of monkeys to be deposited on their new world.  But disaster strikes! The ship is destroyed on the way to the planet and Dr Kern, unable to return home, leaves an Artificial Intelligence in charge of her satellite and puts herself into the stasis in the hope of one day being rescued. What she doesn’t realise is that, although the monkeys didn’t make it, her virus did and, guess what, the planet isn’t actually uninhabited ….

A long, long time passes.

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Babylon 5 – ‘Sleeping in Light’

Twitter reminded me that today is the twentieth broadcast anniversary of the final episode of Babylon 5, ‘Sleeping in Light‘. The episode is set twenty years in the future and follows John Sheridan and his friends as they prepare for his death while, at the same time, the station is being decommissioned.

I remember crying all day after watching ‘Sleeping in Light’. But I was crying in a good ‘I’m sad but satisfied’ kind of way. If I have any criticism of the episode, I feel it’s a little self-indulgent about Sheridan. I would also have very much liked to find out what happened to Lyta and Lennier, but they may have been planning to tell those stories in spin-offs and sequels that never happened. Still, it’s a beautiful finale that respects the integrity of the characters and the story and, overall, feels right.

I owe a lot to Babylon 5. It got me through some difficult times in my early twenties. At one point, I had terrible insomnia and the only way I could get to sleep was to put on an episode and watch until I dropped off.

As well as being an absolute masterpiece of character-driven arc storytelling, I think Babylon 5 proves that a strong creator can engage thoughtfully with the fans and maintain artistic integrity, without ever becoming emotionally manipulative, exploitative or even abusive.

Now that it really is twenty years later, Babylon 5 is still a story I can return to and rely on to be there for me when I need it and that’s really precious.

Perhaps its time for a re-watch.

SF Link Round-up

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SF Link Round-up

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Candas Jane Dorsey, Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988)

The stories in Candas Jane Dorsey’s collection Machine Sex are melancholy and evocative. They are concerned with themes of alienation, displacement, transition and loss, but also with the importance of making connections and the possibilities that may be played out within the limits of our human lives.

The two linked stories, ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and ‘War and Rumours of War’, are set during a moment of transition at the end of old relationships and the beginning of new ones.  As part of a long tradition, a small community gives a young girl to a separatist society of female warriors.  The story is told from the perspectives of the girl and the two women who are sent to collect her. Traumatised, addicted to drugs, hostile and desperately needy, the girl finds herself faced with an entirely new set of values and ways of relating. She must decide whether to let go of her old life and take the risk of connecting with her new companions.  The story features one of the best representations of a disturbed teenager that I’ve ever come across and probably draws on Dorsey’s own life experience as a social worker.  Dorsey also identifies as a queer writer and sexuality is well-handled in her stories.  I especially liked the way ‘Prairie Warriors’ contrasts the sexually abusive patriarchal world of the town with the dynamics of the warrior society in which sexuality is not commodified.

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The 10 short stories that got me into reading science fiction

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek.  I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old.  A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those nineties SF shows.

Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre.  When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.

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Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction 21 (2008)

This is my first encounter with the acclaimed Mammoth Book of Best New SF and I can see why its editor has won so many awards over the years. The stories selected here are of consistently high quality and offer a balanced collection of new and established writers.

On the downside, the content of issue 21 is dominated by white, male authors (25 men to 8 women) and you can see that in 2008, women writers and writers of colour were not getting the same level of attention as white, male writers. As far as I could tell (without looking everyone up) there are only two writers of colour included in this anthology! On a somewhat more positive note, the stories do feature a lot of female protagonists (16 of the 25 stories) which does at least suggest that male writers are starting to consider women as being worth writing about, which is something.

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