City of Illusions (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Posted: October 23, 2015 in fiction
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Finally, a book that doesn’t remind me of unfortunate periods of my life. In fact, this book reminds me primarily of The Wizard of Oz. Shocking, yes, but hang on, I’ll explain.

Our protagonist comes to a new world, full of things he doesn’t quite understand. Falk doesn’t understand anything, actually. His mind has been erased. The novel begins with him in a pre-linguistic state, just like being born. He grows up in a small, peaceful community, somewhere on the east coast of the United States. Not grows up physically, but mentally. After the time most of us spend between birth and school, he leaves home on a journey to discover who he is. He travels across a post-apocalyptic North America – this is later even than most of Le Guin’s novels because the League of All Worlds has collapsed – in order to find the city that will tell him who he is, that will restore him to himself and give him his home. Es Toch is the city of illusions, just as The Emerald City is in Oz. It’s even built of vaguely transparent green not-quite-glass (over the Grand Canyon!). In Baum’s Emerald City, visitors have to be given green-tinted spectacles so that they see the city as emerald. In Es Toch, there’s mind control.

The premise is, that millennia from now people develop their latent telepathic abilities. But it’s a slow learning process and we can’t control our minds (and hence our communication) well. We can only tell the truth. Then, a race comes from far beyond the familiar stars, beyond the League. The Shing know how to mindlie, so they can easily defeat humanity and the allied alien races. When everyone trusts, the dishonorable prevail. But there’s a small colony of former Earthlings who want to return home, and they’ve developed their mental abilities beyond even the Shing. The Shing can lie telepathically, but the people of Werel can catch them at it. The trick becomes, healing Falk’s mind so that he can foil the Shing and save the world.

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.

This idea, that relationship is bound to physical touch, is one of the problems that haunt my life. I think it’s also one of the reasons I like going to a mostly gay church, even though I kind of expect everyone to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. Gay men, taken as a group, seem to be unusually affectionate. I get tons of hugs, and even some beijinhos, the European-style kisses of greeting that denote simple friendship. And this after only attending three times, and having a friend of a friend to situate me in their network of relationships. I need physical affection (not just sex); without it, I mentally wither and die, like a flower without water or sunlight. Which is why, even though I’m in a tough spot with finances, I’ll drive an hour and use four gallons of petrol to attend a church I don’t know I believe in.

So he played for time, trying to devise a way out of his dilemma, flying with Orry and one or another of the Shing here and there over the Earth, which stretched out under their flight like a great lovely garden gone all to seeds and wilderness. He sought with all his trained intelligence some way in which he could turn his situation about and become the controller instead of the one controlled: for so his Kelshak mentality presented his case to him. Seen rightly, any situation, even a chaos or a trap would come clear and lead of itself to its one proper outcome: for there is in the long run no disharmony, only misunderstanding, no chance or mis-chance but only the ignorant eye. So Ramarren thought, and the second soul within him, Falk, took no issue with this view, but spent no time trying to think it out, either. For Falk had seen the dull and bright stones slip across the wires of the patterning-frame, and had lived with men in their fallen estate, kings in exile on their own domain the Earth, and to him it seemed that no man could make his fate or control the game, but only wait for the bright jewel luck to slip by on the wire of time. Harmony exists, but there is no understanding it; the Way cannot be gone. So while Ramarren racked his mind, Falk lay low and waited. And when the chance came he caught it.

Whenever I try to examine my beliefs, I run into this same duality. I was raised as a Christian, but when I got divorced I revolted against it and moved to the Muslim world. Islam was strong enough to untether me from Christianity, but not strong enough to bind me to itself. I see the logic, I do the critical thinking, I trust that in time I’ll see the harmony of the world. But I’ve also seen the beads on the patterning-frame; I have had enough mystical experiences that I can’t completely ascribe to mental illness. Is there a mysticism that isn’t tied to theism? There must be. Maybe, instead of running from or denying spiritual experience, I should be seeking it out more urgently. Even if I don’t trust or fully believe in God, these experiences have helped make my life more bearable. They help me feel less alone. They teach me about myself. There is value in this type of experience, no matter what cosmology others ascribe to it.

This is the second novel of Le Guin’s obscurity that I’ve read, and it shares more with Rocannon’s World than it does with The Dispossessed or Always Coming Home. It’s more traditional 1960s sci-fi/fantasy; it’s all mythic journeys and manliness. The very few female characters are like Bond girls, either useless or evil. The female scientist is so marginal that her name seems to change several times over the course of the book: at first Rayna, then Ranya, finally Ranna. Maybe these are different women, but they play the same minor role and Falk seems to be referring to a single person. The gender exploration and insistence on female worth will come later. But still, this was a good book for me at this time. Thanks, Catherine, for reminding me of an author who is good for me.

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Comments
  1. Yes–Le Guin is good for me too. She’s one of the few authors who can fill me with what some call “nonstupid optimism” (i.e. hope that doesn’t have to shut its eyes to the whole world). I kind of thought this one belonged in obscurity, though–for the problems with women that you mention, for the evil-’cause-I’m-evil Shing, for all the muddling around. But she found her way soon enough after this, which also gives me hope.

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