Following the publication of The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin ceased to write new stories in her Hainish universe. In the following years, she wrote some of the books which are less well known today, including the Orsinia books and the experimental Always Coming Home (1985). At the time it must have seemed as if Le Guin was finished with the Hainish cycle - but after a 16-year break, she began to publish new short stories in 1990. Eventually, she followed these up with one of the most structurally unusual books in the Hainish series - Four Ways to Forgiveness.
Rather than a novel, Four Ways to Forgiveness takes the form of four shorter works. Depending on your definition, these might be termed short stories, novelettes, or novellas. While each is broadly separate and were originally published separately, they are all set on Werel and Yeowe, two worlds in the same planetary system with a complex, evolving, and painful history. The four tales each focus on a different main character, who in their own way confronts or experiences that history first-hand. While Le Guin’s work is almost always very serious in tone, Four Ways to Forgiveness is particularly so, as it emphasises the challenging subjects of freedom, slavery, trauma, and revolution.
As with many planets in the Hainish universe, the worlds of Werel and Yeowe are inhabited by humans seeded there much earlier by the people of Hain, the planet where - in Le Guin’s fiction - humans originally evolved. The stories gradually unfurl the backstory of these worlds. Historically, Werel had a culture founded on slavery in which its darker-skinned people enslaved and controlled its lighter-skinned people (often termed “dusties”). Yeowe was founded as a kind of slave colony by the masters of Werel, but eventually became independent following a bloody but successful revolutionary war.
The book opens with “Betrayal”. This story is what could be called a “two-hander”, as it focuses almost entirely on just two characters. Yoss is an elderly woman who lives alone on Yeowe, and lived through its War of Liberation. She meets and develops a powerful bond with Abberkam, a sickly man who was instrumental to victory in the war but was cast out for betraying the ideals of the revolution. In its domestic setting and focus on the relationship between two elderly characters, this story is reminiscent of parts of Le Guin’s Earthsea series of fantasy novels, particularly Tehanu (1990). The tale reflects the author’s mastery of character development, careful world-building, and subtlety. This relatively uneventful tale could easily become boring - but not with Le Guin at the helm.
The second story, “Forgiveness Day”, also recalls earlier works by Le Guin. Its main character, Solly, is a half-Terran who grew up with a space-faring family. She acts as an Envoy of the Ekumen, Le Guin’s interstellar association of worlds, to the Kingdom of Gatay on Werel. In this capacity, she is similar to the lead characters in Rocannon’s World (1966) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). As with her predecessors, Solly ends up with her life in danger due to her struggles to understand the new culture in which she is immersed. The story emphasises the perils of judging a person or a culture too quickly and expands on the themes of political violence and gender relations which permeate much of the book.
The connections between the stories become a bit more apparent in the third, “A Man of the People”. This one focuses on Havzhiva, a young man who grew up on Hain. The early part of the story is set on Hain itself, which is unusual - the planet is generally only mentioned briefly in other Le Guin works. As with Rocannon’s World, the story is partly about the dislocating effects of time dilation caused by interstellar travel at relativistic speeds. Having left his homeworld, Havzhiva begins working for the Hainish embassy on Yeowe - with Solly being his superior - and becomes exposed to the open wounds of the war there. Notably, given the book’s emphasis on the lives of women Havzhiva is the only male protagonist in the four stories.
“A Woman’s Liberation” concludes the stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness. Told in the first-person, it is a document of the life of a woman named Rakam, beginning in her early childhood on Yeowe. Rakam is a slave who initially knows no other way of life but becomes caught up in tragic, then historic events as the rebellion against slavery breaks out. A key element of “A Woman’s Liberation” is the role of sexual politics in freedom and unfreedom. In a memorable line, Rakam states “I can only say that it may be in our sexuality that we are most easily enslaved [...] the politics of the flesh are the roots of power.” This observation, and the story as a whole, are still very relevant despite the story having been published in the mid-1990s. Le Guin also discusses the lingering prejudices that exist in a society that has thrown off slavery or some other system of oppression - again, sadly relevant today.
The stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness mark the book out as being within the same mode as much of Le Guin’s other work at the time. While it deals extensively with big and dramatic issues, the action of the book is subdued and there is a pervasive sense of physical stillness even as major ideas play out in the background. As with many other entries in the Hainish series, some prior knowledge of other books is helpful but not essential. The book fits into the context of Le Guin’s work in the 1990s and 2000s, in its concern with aging and a more ambiguous examination of political themes. Nothing here is as strident or straightforward as The Word for World is Forest (1972), for example.
Four Ways to Forgiveness could not easily be described as an entry-level Le Guin text; but for those exploring the Hainish series in publication order, it is a consistently intriguing expansion of that universe, applying the author’s uniquely thoughtful style to new and challenging themes.