J.G. Keely's Reviews > Rocannon's World

Rocannon's World by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Aug 28, 2011

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bookshelves: science-fiction, america, reviewed, novella, space-opera
Read from August 27 to 28, 2011

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

-Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Scientific Prediction

It is easy to point to certain works and state 'this is sci fi' or 'this is fantasy', but this has more to do with traditions and habits than with strict definitions. Fantastical works ostensibly look the the past, science fiction to the future, but both operate around grand myths, social meanings, and items of inexplicable power. Often, these items act as tangible moral forces, metaphors-made-real.

Each subgenre has pilfered from the other, so we have seen the tales of John Carter of Mars and Star Wars, fantasy stories with sci fi trappings, and also fantasy stories where magic becomes a replacement for technology, operating by a system of rules as thoroughly described as any technophile digression.

But there has always been room for stories which work between these genres, which use the concepts of both in conjunction, producing from the combination of things familiar a story which feels novel. Lovecraft played often with this line, indicating that every superstitious fear had a rational explanation--a system--even if we, as lowly humans, could never really understand it.

And some modern authors have taken this idea more literally, creating worlds which seem in every way to be magical fantasies, but which actually operate on far-advanced technologies. This was the twist of a certain author's famous series, but I found his execution much less interesting than LeGuin's take.

This story is anchored by an impresive prologue which rewrites a recognizable English fairy myth, seamlessly combining it with the corresponding sci fi tropes. Thus each instance of superstition or impossibility becomes something forward-looking and inevitable.

The story takes some cues from Lovecraft, showing how the disparate knowldege of the interacting cultures becomes the myth of one and the politics of the other. The reader is, of course, from a culture that lies somewhere between mythic past and star-spanning future, but still finds mutual sympathy with both despite the great distances involved.

LeGuin's knowledge and use of the tropes of each genre sets her apart as a conscientious, clever writer, and her ability to weave them together into a single story is even more impressive. Unfortunately, as she expands from the prologue to the story itself, she loses some of the drive of the shorter form.

The story is interesting, thoughtful, and continues to display those little gems of insight which tie the myths of magic to the myths of technology, but she does not take advantage of the longer form's strengths. She seems to feel the need for more and deeper character interactions, but never quite manages to demonstrate them.

As in Left Hand of Darkness, I felt a need for more: for her to plunge deeper, to take more risks, and to give us more of the moments she only hinted at. We also get a similar story of an alien lost in a strange world, traveling ever on with a specific but impersonal mission. He makes friends, but always distantly, and in the end, must give them up to achieve his ends. This method would have been more effective if those relationships had been more developed.

Likewise, we get a bit of telepathy here and there, but yet again, it is not important to the story, nor does she use it as an opportunity to explore something difficult. Even as she cleverly turns magic into technology, she fails to do much with the bits of sci fi magic that remain.

I appreciated what she achieved, but she extended the story to a length which exceeded its depth. Everything is laid out so exquisitely in the opening chapter that nothing after quite measures up to it.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Yefim The original chapter used to be a separate short story that she later expanded on. Kind of how McIntyre did with the original Dreamsnake, another novel that fails to live up to the short story that originated it.

J.G. Keely Yefim said: "The original chapter used to be a separate short story that she later expanded on. ... fails to live up to the short story that originated it. "

Yeah, it can be difficult to expand a short story in that way, stretching that original, concise theme over a whole novel.

Dr M It is easy to overlook the early Hain books. They tend to become overshadowed by the more well-known and more overtly intellectual (not to mention political) "Left hand" and "The Dispossessed" that came immediately after. This is a pity, because at least Rocannon's World and City of Illusions are little gems of their own, even if simple and unassuming in many ways. I think that is the one thing I would add to this review: Le Guin shows how much can be achieved with simplicity.

J.G. Keely Dr M said: "one thing I would add to this review: Le Guin shows how much can be achieved with simplicity"

Agreed. In her essays in The Language of Night, she presents herself as a very instinctual writer, connecting to story and character rather than carefully outlining and organizing her thoughts. Yet, I feel that in her big books, like Left Hand, she is much more deliberate and overt, and loses some of the simple connection of stories like the Hain series, or even later stuff like Orsinian Tales.

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