Ursula K. LeGuin passed away on January 22, 2018. It was a tremendous loss. During a writing career that began in 1959, LeGuin published over 20 novels, over a dozen collections of short stories, and several books of poetry. She was an icon of both science fiction and fantasy, producing a hugely acclaimed cycle of novels in each genre. The Earthsea cycle is LeGuin’s primary contribution to fantasy, a set of five novels and a collection of short stories published between 1968 and 2001. She made an enormous impact on SF with the books in what others have called her “Hainish cycle”. LeGuin’s most acclaimed books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) form a part of this loose cycle.
All too often, discussion of LeGuin’s work begins and ends with these well-known and influential books. However, the three novels which preceded them, and which begin the Hainish cycle, are absolutely worthy of reading and examination in their own right. They are undoubtedly minor works compared to the books which made LeGuin’s name, but they introduce many of the concepts and themes which underpin the books written later.
LeGuin’s very first novel, Rocannon’s World, was published by Ace Books in 1966. Initially, it was released in the unusual dos-á-dos or “back-to-back” format, a gimmick that Ace was known for at the time. This edition contained two short novels; LeGuin’s debut was packaged with The Kar-Chee Reign by Avram Davidson. When readers had finished one novel, they could flip the book upside down to read the other.
The novel begins with a prologue, “The Dowry of the Angyar”, which was originally published as a short story in 1964. It relates the tragic tale of Semley, a young woman on an alien world who seeks to retrieve an old family heirloom. In doing so, she falls foul of the effects of time dilation experienced due to travelling at close to light speed. The story, like the rest of Rocannon’s World, is concerned with the interactions between technologically sophisticated societies, and primitive ones. In the prologue, Semley meets representatives of the “Ekumen”, an association of many star-faring civilisations. In the remainder of the novel, the situation is reversed. Gaverel Rocannon, an ethnologist from the high-tech Ekumen, becomes stranded on Semley’s world, the planet Fomalhaut II.
Due to the backwards nature of the planet, much of the novel feels more like fantasy than SF. The species that Rocannon encounters resemble elves and dwarves, and they use swords and embark on heroic quests. Only gradually does Rocannon find ways to employ his background and skills, as he tries to defeat an mysterious enemy of the Ekumen which has constructed a base on Fomalhaut II. Another focus of the book is how real events become legend; the opening page memorably mentions “planets without history, where the past is a matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god.”
LeGuin’s second novel, Planet of Exile, was also published in the back-to-back format by Ace, later in 1966. This time, LeGuin’s book shared its binding with Mankind Under the Leash by Thomas M. Disch. The backstory of the cycle is further exposed in this novel. In LeGuin’s science fiction, humans did not evolve on Earth, but rather on the planet Hain. Earth is merely one of many worlds which various subspecies of humans have settled. Over time, these populations have become separated, with only the Ekumen or “League of Worlds” seeking to reunite them.
Planet of Exile is set on the planet Werel, in the Gamma Draconis system. It focuses on two subspecies of humans who cannot interbreed, live separately, and have a degree of mutual suspicion. Jakob Agat is one of a dwindling group of Earth humans stranded on Werel, while young Rolery is part of the local population. Gradually, both are drawn into a struggle for survival which coincides with the onset of winter. Werel’s orbital cycle is so long that its seasons last for decades, and life is made harder still by an arriving army of marauders.
LeGuin’s second novel is stranger and more challenging than her first. All of the main characters are significantly alien in their own ways, and Werel is a far cry from the recognisable fantasy tropes that populated Fomalaut II in Rocannon's World. However, LeGuin’s themes come through even more strongly, such as the futility of violence, the tense danger of cultural exchange, and the difficulties of living in a harsh environment.
City of Illusions was published in 1967, also by Ace Books but this time as an ordinary, one-novel volume. No longer did LeGuin need to share the limelight, or the binding, with another author. While still loosely connected with the prior novels, the book switches things up again considerably. The setting is a far-future Earth, where a man with no memory stumbles into a small, bucolic community. The people there name him “Falk”, or “yellow”, based on his strange and seemingly alien eyes. While helping him build his own life and personality, they warn him against a fearsome alien enemy, the “Shing”, who have seemingly defeated the Ekumen and subjected Earth to their rule.
The novel is well named, as Falk’s journey into the world outside the community leaves him beset by deception and betrayal. The book is acutely concerned with identity, history and the question of what is and is not real. LeGuin’s interest in communication and linguistics is also in evidence, as in the contrast between innately truthful “mindspeech”, and the Shing’s powerful ability to deceive their subjects via “mindlying”. Gradually, Falk must establish who he actually is and try to understand his place in the world - and whether Earth is his place at all.
Considering LeGuin’s stature within the SF field, her first three novels have received relatively little attention over the years - despite their connection with her most famous books. However, this loosely connected sequence is easy to recommend. Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions are short and accessible novels, the longest barely over 150 pages. They have the mysterious and poetic style for which LeGuin is known and they set up the intensely humane and curious themes that would make the author a key figure in social science fiction. It is rewarding to read them in close sequence, as it makes the subtle but significant connections between them clearer. Ultimately, there is no disputing Ursula K. LeGuin’s enormous importance within speculative fiction - and her first three novels are a good place to start reading her work. After all, it’s where she started, too.