Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review of Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin

Daughter to an anthropologist and psychologist, it was perhaps inevitable that once Ursula Le Guin started writing fiction, deep questions surrounding culture and human interaction would eventually trickle into her work.  Virtually right off the bat, however, she confronts readers with the subjects.  A far more mature work than her rather simplistic first effort Rocannon’s World, her second novel Planet of Exile, also published in 1966, possesses all of the rudiments of style and content that would color the majority of her later novels,.  Planet of Exile the story of a community trying to come to terms with the disillusion and enmity of its two member groups in engaging, personal style, Le Guin fully brings to bear the subjects of her parents’ interests in this short but satisfying novel.

Planet of Exile is set on Werel, a planet far distant from other inhabited places in the universe, and one with exceptionally long seasons given its odd solar setup.  Technologically advanced humans having come and gone many, many years prior, the “cultural attaches” (called Farborn) who were left behind hold little hope anyone will return for them and have begun to experience the degradations of living in a foreign environment.  Conception foremost among them, their population is in decline.  Childbirth, however, is no problem for the native Tevarans, a people who have little trust for the dark-skinned invaders.  Holding the telepathic people capable of witchcraft and other evil talents, hostility occasionally breaks out, the Tevarans naturally protective of their women.  But when the Gaals, a primitive, war-like group from the north, are rumored to be gathering en masse for an invasion, the Tevarans may have no choice but to seek refuge with the better protected Farborn.  The events which result leave the sentient fate of Werel hanging in the balance.

Planet of Exile is told through the eyes of a handful of main characters.  Foremost is Rolery, a young Teveran woman born off-cycle (i.e. the winter, which excludes her from the Tevaran’s value-system of proper child-bearing).  Finding herself eerily drawn to the Farborn, her fellow tribesmen seek to dissuade her.  Wold is the chief of the Teverans, a harsh old man who is uninterested in progress, not to mention heeding any warning from the Farborn of an imminent invasion.  Agat is a young leader among the Farborn who is tasked with convincing the Tevarans that the Gaal are a serious threat and that a united effort would best suit both groups.  A handful of other characters, partially sketched, fill out the narrative and give it life.

Planet of Exile is quite a short novel.  As a result, some readers may complain of the lack of worldbuilding.  But given that Le Guin keeps focus where it should be: concept development and characterization, the sum is greater than the 125 pages would seem to allow.  Smoothly fitting meaningful material into the slim book, Le Guin shows she understands the hearts of mankind—the dark and light sides—while telling an interesting tale.  Theme is well balanced with personal stories, in turn marking significant progress from the fairy-tale feel of Rocannon’s World.  The final twenty-five pages perhaps attempt to tackle one or two too many topics for such a small volume, the overall story still resolves the issues raised in a manner complementary to plot and premise—a sign Le Guin was well on her way to becoming something more.

In the end, Planet of Exile, is a short but effective read that gives every indication of the great works that were to come from Le Guin—despite the poor title.  (I’m still trying to figure out its origin.)  The premise of two cultures at loggerheads simple, it is nevertheless fleshed out in more realistic detail than some of the author’s later books—The Telling, for example.  Characters are sketched loosely, but in pragmatic enough detail to toe the line between stereotype and realism.  Cultural interaction, confronting the Other, cultural memory, enmity, even cultural intrusion (something Iain M. Banks also deals with in Inversions) are discussed.  Though exact opposites in page count, the novel also bears comparison to Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia.  The cosmic setup loosely similar, both offer major stage time to cultural interaction and the divergences and conflicts which arise.  An important difference, however, is that Le Guin offers a solution to these problems where Aldiss keeps his distance allowing the pieces to fall where they will.

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