Don’t You Know Her When You See Her?
By Ursula K. Le Guin
1966’s Rocannon’s World was Ursula K. Le Guin’s debut science fiction novel.
Semley’s world has been impoverished by taxes imposed by recent visitors from a far-off land. She is not reconciled to the loss of a family treasure, a necklace worth a kingdom. Her quest to reclaim the necklace takes her first to the dwarfish Clayfolk in their underground halls and then to the overlords who received it from the Clayfolk. The overlords kindly return her necklace.
Had this been a fantasy novel, all might have been well. But she is a native of Fomalhaut II and she is a character in a science fiction novel. Her quest has tragic consequences.
The League of All Worlds is barely aware that Fomalhaut II exists. The pittance Semley’s people contribute to the League’s common defense is negligible. It’s absurd to force a mostly pre-industrial world to pay for a looming interstellar war … but the League didn’t know that the world was poor, didn’t realize that taxation was absurd. When ethnologist Gaverel Rocannon meets Semley and learns of her world’s plight, he has the world put under embargo; its native cultures are to be protected and left alone.
Semley’s quest would have a happy ending were it not that Semley returns to her castle, thinking only a few days have passed, she finds that almost twenty years have passed since she vanished (thanks to relativity and time dilation). Her husband is long dead. Her daughter is a grown woman. Semley does not deal with the revelation well.
This is where the short story that sparked the novel ended. Le Guin felt that there was more to say about this world and added a coda that turned the short story into a novel.
Rocannon orchestrates and leads an expedition to Semley’s world, Fomalhaut II. It is unusual in that unlike most inhabited worlds, it is home to a number of species, some of which are technologically advanced (if not as advanced as the League). The first expedition to Fomalhaut II was obviously cursory and missed much; Rocannon hopes to discover much of interest.
Unbeknownst to Rocannon, rebels from distant Faraday covet isolated Fomalhaut II for their own (expecting their rebellion on Faraday to fail). They have set up a base on the planet, which base destroys Rocannon’s ship. Every member of the expedition is killed, save for Rocannon himself.
Rocannon survives, on a strange planet, alone, with almost none of the technology that has made the League so formidable; all he has is a spacesuit that makes him nearly invulnerable. But it isn’t enough just to survive. He must warn the League of the hidden base, if only in kindness to the many folk of Fomalhaut II. He fears that the Faraday rebels will enslave or exterminate the natives.
Crewed ships only travel at speeds close to the speed of light, but robotic ships can achieve FTL travel. If Rocannon can alert the League, a robot ship could reach Fomalhaut II in time to destroy the base and prevent the worst. A radio message would take too long. He needs to get to an ansible, a superluminal communicator, which can send messages that will arrive instantaneously. The one on his ship has been destroyed. He could find one on the Faraday base … if he can reach it and infiltrate it.
The base is distant; travel across the intervening lands will be dangerous. Nevertheless the ethnologist sets out (with a few native companions) to save a world.
Years ago, I acquired this book thanks to my inability to return SFBC order forms in a timely manner. SFBC monthly selections were dispatched unless the patron declined them; I didn’t decline in time. Thus, I am the proud owner of Three Hainish Novels
(the most recent edition is called Worlds of Exile and Illusion).
Rocannon’s World was Le Guin’s first SF novel. It is in many ways unlike the novels she wrote later. The League of All Worlds is utterly unlike the kindly, pacifist Ekumen of later novels. The League taxes its subject worlds:
a tribute for the Starlord’s war that was to be fought with some strange enemy, somewhere in the hollow places between the stars, at the end of years.
The League is preparing for war and encouraging colonized worlds to industrialize.
This was how the League of All Worlds prepared to meet its ultimate enemy. A hundred worlds had been trained and armed, a thousand more were being schooled in the uses of steel and wheel and tractor and reactor.
Note: whoever this ultimate enemy is — I have not read the next two books in the sequence in decades and forget most of the details — it comes from another galaxy. It isn’t the Faraday, who are home-grown imperialists from one of the many worlds settled a long time ago by the Hain.
Now if Rocannon were an utterly unbiased ethnologist (an impossibility, really) he might be able to take a dispassionate view of the planet. What we see is that he’s annoyed at the first crew of explorers for favouring the Clayfolk. The explorers were Centurans and felt more at home with the Clayfolk. Rocannon, who is Hainish, feels more at home with Semley’s people. So much for impartiality.
Le Guin, as the inventor of this setting, can take a step back. She’s quietly scathing on the profound ignorance that underlies the League’s paternalism. The League imposes taxes; this has profound effects on the locals. Rocannon gets the taxes rescinded and has an embargo imposed. That also has profound effects on the locals. Many of them had come to expect routine contact with the League and its tech; they’re upset when that contact ceases. When Rocannon comes to them begging for help, they refuse. His quest succeeds only because some other locals take pity on him.
At novel’s end, when the League gives the planet a new name, they name it after Rocannon. Paternalistic colonialism triumphs.
This is not one of Le Guin’s more successful books. It reads like an Andre Norton novel. The prose is deft, as one might expect, but the plot is episodic and slow. This is a book for Le Guin completists.
Rocannon’s World is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).