J.G. Keely's Reviews > City of Illusions

City of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Aug 31, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction, america, novella, post-apocalyptic, dystopia, reviewed, space-opera
Read from August 30 to September 02, 2011

Like the rest of the early books in the Hainish series, this one has a very familiar tone and plot. We have our isolated, alienated protagonist on his quest for one single goal through an unpredictable world which he cannot comprehend, making strangely disconnected romantic liaisons on the way, and constantly lost in thought about how human relationships are supposed to work.

But of all the series, this book uses these recurrent themes in the most interesting and naturalistic ways. The first half of the book, where the post-apocalyptic theme is most prominent, is the stronger portion. LeGuin gives us many brief vignettes of our protagonist's journey across the world, each one different in tone, each one modifying the character's overall experience and giving new insight to his fundamental quest of self-discovery.

Every encounter seems to reveal some aspect of the madness of humanity, but always remembering that in our mad obsessions and unpredictability lie also our wisdom, our unique experiences--something to be learned. It seems telling that LeGuin's standard character psychology of an emotionally stunted paranoid works best in a story about a complete amnesiac lost in a post-apocalyptic world of deadly dangers, but kudos to her for writing to suit her habits; it's a trick more writers should use.

The dystopian aspect comes on rather suddenly and completely changes the tone of the story, almost as if each half were a separate short piece loosely connected, except that the first half does not have a conclusion without the second to cap it. The dystopia of hidden psychics bears a definite resemblance to Slan, though LeGuin's is a more subtle and practised hand.

This latter arc is fairly exciting and interesting, but has less of the unique vision. Its tone of oppressive confusion is also somewhat repetitive, and might have benefited from the character actively switching between options rather than sitting inactively avoiding either one. The character does eventually come to a conclusion, but it would have helped the depth of the conflict if the character had more actively explored the sides rather than sitting and ruminating.

Then again, a lot of LeGuin's conflicts play out internally as struggles within the characters' minds. This is not a bad method, but I think such conflicts play out better when such conflicts are clearly demonstrated by the character's actions and patterns of speech and behavior, bolstered here and there by a thought, rather than descending entirely into the character and leaving the plot behind for the period of digression.

But despite these caveats, I found this the most varied and imaginative of LeGuin's books, with a truly engrossing combination of verisimilitude and hallucinatory imagery from the cusp of madness. I look forward to more LeGuin in the future, especially if this work is an indication of her evolution as a writer, who here seems almost to have found her ideal voice, if sometimes fleetingly.
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11/01/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by K.D. (new)

K.D. Absolutely Your reviews are always truthful, Keely.
When I read them, I don't feel like you are wanting to get votes or recognition. Don't stop writing this way.


J.G. Keely Yeah, I mostly use this site to get my thoughts down before I forget them. I know that there are a few people who 'friend' or 'follow' me, so I try to keep that in mind when I write, that someone else might read this, so I have to explain my shorthand and references, and putting in a joke or two isn't just self-indulgence, but I'm not much for pandering--not really my strength.


message 3: by K.D. (new)

K.D. Absolutely Thanks, Keely. Yes, I always read and admire your reviews.


J.G. Keely Thanks so much. I'm glad you enjoy them.


message 5: by Han (new) - added it

Han Asra I think I've just found a start line for reading Leguin's work. Any other recommendation which should I take?


J.G. Keely Well, I've only read some of her books in the Hainish Cycle and the first entry in Earthsea--I think Left Hand of Darkness is also worth a look, and I've heard that The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven are very good.


message 7: by Han (new) - added it

Han Asra Thanks Keely for the recommendation. As she is one of the most active writer, much like Michael Moorcock, she does write a lot of books


J.G. Keely Yeah, and both of them are still out there, alive and writing.


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