Rocannon’s World (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Posted: May 14, 2015 in fiction
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It is incredibly difficult for me to judge this book accurately, on its own merits. Originally published fifty years ago, it and others of its type have been so influential that I don’t know if it was new and groundbreaking at the time or run-of-the-mill. Reading it now, it seems fairly unremarkable, a sci-fi/fantasy journey story like many, many others. The writing is better, but plot and character are kind of normal.

One thing that sets this story apart is the blending of science fiction and fantasy. Libraries and bookstores tend to lump these two categories together, but their authors generally keep them distinct. I think it’s Piers Anthony who goes so far as to say that magic and science can’t coexist in the same world. But here, the two collide, sometimes quite literally. Rocannon journeys through an imagined world where all the animals have wings, and there are multiple species of self-aware, speaking beings. One group is small and telepathic, the other is average-human-sized. They fly around on winged battle cats, which are kind of amazing. Personally, I can’t really imagine anyone riding a cat of any sort for more than a few seconds. Rocannon is traveling to investigate reports of weird things in the sky. The enterprising reader will recognize them as helicopters. Some rebels from a different planet have landed down in the southern hemisphere, and are trying to use their techno-savvy to take over the entire world. We don’t see a whole lot of these guys because they’re the goal of Rocannon’s voyage of discovery, but still, the collision of sci-fi and fantasy is interesting to see. And sad, because if you’re on a flying battle cat you really shouldn’t ram a helicopter.

From the right, from the chasm of air and cloud, shot a gray winged beast ridden by a man who shouted in a voice like a high, triumphant laugh. One beat of the wide gray wings drove steed and rider forward straight against the hovering machine, full speed, head on. There was a tearing sound like the edge of a great scream, and then the air was empty.

The two on the cliff crouched staring. No sound came up from below. Clouds wreathed and drifted across the abyss.

“Mogien!”

Rocannon cried the name aloud. There was no answer. There was only pain, and fear, and silence.

And here, toward the end, we see the themes for which Ursula Le Guin has distinguished herself: the rejection of technocratic warmongering, the passionate pacifism, and the compassionate value for all forms of life, both human and nonhuman. Rocannon learns to communicate telepathically, and he uses that power to defeat the rebels, but when he hears all their minds fall silent at once, it unmans him and he ends his days in Byronic isolation, like Obi-wan Kenobi meets The Giaour.

Rocannon’s World is perched at the very beginning of a remarkable career. It began as the short story “Semley’s Necklace,” to be found in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which is now the prologue. In a few years Le Guin will publish The Left Hand of Darkness and pull away from the pack of run-of-the-mill genre writers. Her books are somewhat easy to find in new bookstores but difficult to locate in used shops, which indicates the high quality of her body of work. This one both fitly represents its moment in literary history and looks to the future, to its author’s shining career, to her novels and collections that touch hearts, win awards, and sell millions of copies.

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