Review of Rocannon's World by Ursula K. Le Guin
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Wow. That is an awful, awful cover. It just screams, "I'm a pulp fantasy cover from the '60s! Ignore me if you want people to think you're normal!" If ever there was a time not to judge a book by its cover, now is that time. Rocannon's World is Ursula K. Le Guin's first novel, and it shows. Nonetheless, it's not as cringe-worthy as this paperback reprint's cover makes it seem.
Anyone familiar with Le Guin's work will end up being disappointed, I suspect, not because Rocannon's World is bad but because Le Guin gets so much better as she goes on. From an academic perspective, this book is interesting because it already contains many of the themes Le Guin revisits in later novels. Rocannon reminded me at times of Ged, from A Wizard of Earthsea, and Genly, from The Left Hand of Darkness. Like the latter novel, this book takes place on a world whose inhabitants are less technologically developed than the League of All Worlds (later the Ekumen). Rocannon acts as a personification of Le Guin's sociological and anthropological interests in a different but still "human" society.
The central conflict is one of revenge. It's true that Rocannon also acts to protect Fomalhaut II and alert the League, but in his heart, he's acting because he's the only survivor of a terrible event, and this is the only thing he can do other than sit and wait for the end to come. Perhaps this scent of a last, mad quest is what makes him so beloved of the heroic Angyar. Rocannon is this larger-than-life, nearly godlike figure who's featured in their mythology, owing to the effects of relativistic space travel. When he says he's going on a long, perilous journey to find his enemies, the Angyar look for where they can sign up.
The similarities to Ged appear during this quest: Rocannon becomes fixated on finding and defeating his enemy, going so far as to acquire some form of telepathy from a mysterious creature he encounters on the southern continent. Rocannon's quest is all consuming, and when he is finished, he has nothing left. No reason to return "home" and no reason to go back to the home of the Angyar.
This is a short novel, but as I hope you can see, it unpacks into a multi-faceted narrative. I'm ambivalent about how much the secondary characters contribute. On one hand, Mogien and Yahan are great companions for Rocannon—especially the latter, as Yahan rescues Rocannon and acts like a faithful squire for the entire trip. Through them, we get a sense of the social order of the Angyar and how Rocannon perturbs that order. On the other hand, there's something about Le Guin's writing that keeps them ever distant. I think it's related to my mixed feelings about her use of telepathy—it feels unnecessary to the entire narrative. Why can't Rocannon find the enemy some other way? Likewise, while I recognize the need to see the Angyar as aliens, we don't get close to anyone except Rocannon.
Rocannon's World is a fulfilling adventure story—I particularly enjoy the ending, which is sappy but tinged bittersweet. As we see in her later Hainish novels, Le Guin uses relativity as a wonderful plot device while also exploring the psychological implications of such forms of space travel. Even in her first novel, Le Guin shows what a careful and thoughtful writer she will become. Her ways of describing space travel to alien, less developed species are always poetic in a somewhat melancholy way: "They can send death at once, but life is slower." That's true even for those of us who don't have FTL ships.