Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. LeGuin

From the writer who brought us ANARCHISTS...IN...SPAAAAAACE!!! (The Dispossessed) and interplanetary poly-gender snow trekking (The Left Hand of Darkness) and Man vs. Dragon vs. Self vs. Death Golem (A Wizard of Earthsea) comes a tightly-woven little novella about--you guessed it!--different cultures figuring one another out under big-picture duress.

Okay, so she wrote it 47 years ago. This novel is not exactly a literary event. BUT WE CAN MAKE IT ONE. Planet of Exile is old enough that no one remembers it, and good enough that everyone should.

On Planet of Exile, winters last fifteen years. It is home to two indigenous groups, a barbarian horde and a less-barbaric tribal group, plus a dwindling population of aliens left there by settlers centuries before. In the face of winter and an unprecedented barbarian migration, the alien settlers and the less-barbaric tribal group have to overcome their mutual distrust and team up to survive.

If you’ve read LeGuin before (or any competent sci-fi, really), then you know what to expect: there’s a dramatic, straightforward plot (horde invasion, plus difficult cooperation between the aliens and the tribes) which gets used as a vehicle for LeGuin to explore Big Ideas. In Planet, those include genetic adaptation and, of course, how culture creates meaning and polices behavior. For example, consider this comment between the two main characters, made upon their first meeting:

“I know who you are. Do you know who I am? I’m a falseman, a farborn. If your tribesmen see you with me they’ll either castrate me or ceremonially rape you--I don’t know which rules you follow. Now go home!”

It’s not so much science fiction as anthropology fantasy--just as Ender’s Game isn’t about bugs in space so much as children in the military, and V for Vendetta isn’t about nuclear war and surveillance so much as the plausibility of a resurgence of fascism.

But whatever it is, it’s bloody brilliant, just like the rest of LeGuin’s work. She’s a reliable, consistent author, and one of the best in science fiction. If you’ve got a free afternoon and you want to spend it inside a book, Planet of Exile is highly recommended.

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