Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. Le Guin

In Planet of Exile, a group of settlers from the League of Worlds has been abandoned on their colony for hundreds of years, since the ships all ran off to fight in some great and nameless war. The world is one with a long and eccentric orbit, so its years are 60 earth-years long, and its winters particularly harsh and brutal. The colonists are slowly dying out due to low birth rates and incompatabilities with the native ecology, and hampered by their devotion to a code that will not allow them to introduce technological advances to the world without the natives discovering them first. The natives, on the other hand, lead nomadic lives and are quite content with their traditional ways, seeing no need for any such advancement. Some shelter through the long winters in cities which are torn down again in the spring, and others migrate towards the equator and warmer climes.

The story is set at the coming of winter, and the migratory natives are seen for the first time to be banding together into large armies, which threatens the security of both the native cities and the colonists. By working together they have a chance to save themselves, but are nearly lost when their inability to see each other as equals destroys their alliance; the breakup sparked by the discovery that the daughter of a native chief has fallen in love with one of the leaders of the colony, and he returns her love. In the end they manage to fight together and fend off the migrating hordes, and it is seen that in addition to being accepted by the natives the settlers may be beginning to be accepted by their new world; they are adapting to, and becoming adapted to, its ecology to the point where they have a chance to survive.

It could all be very schmaltzy, but it isn't. Instead of miraculously being brought together by the love of the couple, the two tribes are - alas, far more realistically - nearly destroyed by the jealosy and racism it brings out. And they know that their love is foolish and self-destructive, but there just isn't much they can do about it. The panic and terror of fighting for their lives comes across very well - this is no glorification of battle - and yet so does the exhiliration of survival and victory. All throughout the story the question continually arises: "do we risk fighting the enemy only to lose to nature's winter?" and in the end it becomes clear that nature will indeed be the deciding factor. But luck gives them a brief symbolic victory against nature, which leads nicely into the chance that they might be able to continue to exist on this planet after all.

Ursula once again in fine form.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ah, yes, the other reason to have Ursula listed here; so I can remember which story goes with which title.

This one must be one of the earliest Ekumen novels - internally and externally. It was written in 1966, and it covers a time before "the fall" when the League of Worlds is seeking allies against a mysterious unspecified enemy who is coming from another galaxy. It reads a bit like a fairy tale, despite clearly being science fiction, by taking on a bit of the feel of the feudal society it describes.

A young wife to an impoverished lord sets out to regain a famous treasure lost to her family generations before. She speaks to some flighty elf-like creatures who send her to see some troglodytic dwarves, who in turn take her on a journey in strange mechanical conveyances to a strange museum. There she asks a man for the jewel, he gives it to her, and she returns home to find decades have passed, her husband is dead and her infant daughter grown.

It turns out, of course, that the strange conveyance was a near-lightspeed starship which the dwarves were given by the League, in an attempt to build them up technically to the point where they could help in the war; in a ritual exchange of gifts the dwarves had given the jewel, but the League didn't really care about it so they gave it back when asked. The strange museum was on another world, and the relativistic travel speeds are what caused the missing time.

Rocannon is the man who saw the girl and gave her the jewel, and intrigued by the little known about her race - and somewhat haunted by her beauty - he organises an expedition to the planet to re-evaluate the way the League is dealing with only the dwarves. While on the planet a rebellion occurs in the League, and the rebels destroy Rocannon's ship, his teammates, and his only method of communication with the rest of the galaxy. He sets out on a journey with his companion - the grandson of the woman he was haunted by - to reach the enemy base and somehow warn the rest of the League. The journey is long, arduous, quite interesting, and ultimately difficult to satisfyingly summarise, so I won't. Go read the book. In the end he learns what amounts to telepathy from a strange being in the mountains, but has to pay a high price for his newly won skills. He uses this new ability to sneak onto the enemy base and accomplish his goal, and is presumably offstage the manner in which the human race learns telepathy.

As usual for Ursula, a well-told story which follows some interesting consequences of technical ideas (relativistic travel but FTL communication, etc.) but is ultimately more about people, and how they cope with the situations they find themselves in. This is the first time I'd read this one, and it was interesting to get that much more of the back story to what comes after.