06 Jan 2023

📚 Rocannon’s World & Planet of Exile

I enjoyed reading Rocannon’s World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s first published novel.1 It was neat to discover that many of her signature ingredients were in place right from the start:

Le Guin realizes most of these ingredients more fully in her later work (The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea particularly come to mind), but they’re all here.

If you’re curious to read Ursula K. Le Guin, I’d recommend starting with one of her more famous books (like Earthsea or Left Hand). They’re better. But if you were curious about this book for whatever reason, or if you’ve already read those ones, I’d happily recommend this. It’s good, and I was both satisfied and a little sad it was over when I finished.

I did not enjoy Planet of Exile, her second published novel which is set in the same Hainish universe, as much. This surprised me. I figured that as an early author finding her form, her second pass would be better than her first. Maybe she had more time realizing Rocannnon’s World? Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste; the two books have similar ratings on Goodreads…

In her courses on writing, Le Guin emphasizes the importance that a story moves. From her excellent writing guide, Steering the Craft:

What it has to do is move — end up in a difference place from where it started. That’s what narrative does. It goes. It moves. Story is change.

Well, Rocannon’s World moves. Quite literally: Rocannon moves clear across the planet of Fomalhaut II as he journeys on his quest, and the narrative and reader move with him. I enjoyed some deep flow while reading it, immersed in the story’s movement, propelled by Le Guin’s minimal and pure style.

I didn’t find the same kind of movement and accompanying flow in Planet of Exile. The plot kind of meanders, and we end up somewhat in the same place as we started. The characters and communities they live in do change, so Le Guin is still following her own advice. She just isn’t doing it with the singular aesthetic that the focus and drive of Rocannon’s World and her later works offer.

I appreciate Planet of Exile nonetheless, as a brief stop on the way to greater things. And I enjoyed some of the ideas, like how both peoples (one native, one alien) think of themselves as human and the others as other. I liked the further exploration of mindspeak, which we first encounter in Rocannon’s World. And I enjoyed the alternating viewpoints that Le Guin experiments with here; the counterbalance of Rolery and Jakob as wife and husband feels like a prototype for the gender exploration that Le Guin masterfully realizes in The Left Hand of Darkness. In all, though, I might skip reading Planet of Exile unless you are an avid Le Guin fan or interested to see what the early work that comes before a masterpiece can look like.

  1. The original cover that it was published with is so bad! It completely misrepresents the novel’s ethos. Le Guin pushed the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and it really shows in artifacts like this. What’s that old saying about judging books by their cover…?