After I posted a review on this site of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, the novelist Adam Novy recommended that I check out her under-read first novel, Rocannon’s World. So I did. Our email exchanges about the book developed over a few weeks (during which time I ended up reading all of Le Guin’s so-called Hainish novels), and Adam’s analysis of the novel is, I think, especially perceptive. An edit of our conversation is below.
Edwin Turner: Thanks for suggesting Rocannon’s World, Adam. I’m not really sure how I missed it in my first few forays into Le Guin—when I was younger it might not have been in my school library—but I’m glad I read it. Very vivid stuff. You told me it was your favorite Le Guin. Why?
Adam Novy: There are many reasons why I love Rocannon’s World. The beautiful and exact descriptive writing, and the syntax. Le Guin can really sing. The sadness of the heroes for their vanished civilizations. The way so many passages evoke the feel of hiking. The flying cats. The incomparable ending.
But it’s the way Le Guin explores the idea of agency sets the book apart for me. The protagonists, Semley and Rocannon, take decisive action they believe in, which sets in motion plots that spiral out of control and annihilate their intentions. Rocannon and Semley end up being massive historical figures, yet also tiny cogs in galaxy-sized machines. This comparison of the massive and the tiny is not a calculated stalemate—not the cultivated balance I think a lot of writers feel we must produce these days, as if our calculations will be checked and we might get partial credit—but an ambivalence that’s immune to human desire or even narrative. It’s one of the things I love about Le Guin. Her idea of a human being’s influence in the world is like the ancients’.
This is fascinating to me in a lot of ways, first at the level of plot. How much should a character affect the world around her? Too much power can seem unserious and thrillery, like a fantasy, like competence porn. (A possible new definition of literary fiction is “incompetence porn.”) Le Guin is just so elegant with this. Semley and Rocannon may be important figures in their communities—Semley is a kind of Duchess and Rocannon is a government anthropologist with administrative dominion over half the galaxy—and yet, by merely performing their own social roles, they ruin everything they care about, including the context in which their identities exist. Le Guin’s formula is magical: a central figure in a community commits a deliberate act, and the consequences are massive, unforeseen, accidental, and diminish this central figure to almost nothing. And yet, despite their total disempowerment, their influence endures in major ways. But even this is misconstrued by people in the future, who tell the history. There is no linear connection between intention and result. The reader feels the ages passing every time Rocannon takes a step.
This leads to the other aspect of the plot I really love, which is political. Rocannon is a bureaucrat in a colonial hegemony, and by honestly yet patronizingly trying to protect the subjects he administrates, he initiates a plot that will destroy them, and himself. He’s a kind of blinkered, well-meaning liberal who does not know what the hell he’s really doing, or how power works, since the force that does the destroying—an anti-government entity called “the enemy”—seems to emanate from the government Rocannon works for. In the end, his people simply don’t belong on the planet, which he only learns when he, too, is a refugee.
ET: But there’s also the sense that Rocannon integrates into the planet—he marries into the Angyar at the end, although we don’t really hear that story. It’s an epilogue that fulfills the legend-structure of the tale. So, on one hand Le Guin’s written this story that’s highly ironic—especially in the ironic title, Rocannon’s World—a title that points to the novel’s themes of colonialism. On the other hand, there’s a sense of discovery and exploration—a kind of High Adventure narrative à la Verne, where our viewpoint character ascends, peers down over the planet from his flying machine (in this case a winged cat).
And then Rocannon sort of achieves his Romantic quest of attaining Semley, or rather the idea of Semley—the exotic, the beautiful, the aristocratic—by marrying into her ancestral chain, and becoming a sort of Duke. This is all very much Fairy Tale stuff, Fantasy stuff. And Le Guin isn’t really synthesizing fantasy tropes with sci-fi in Rocannon’s World. It’s more like she’s tapping into a deeper, mythic vein—so on some level, I think that the novel is really about storytelling itself. There’s something oral and episodic about it, with its riffs on Eurydice and winged men and Valhalla. I reread The Dispossessed after Rocannon’s World. The Dispossessed strikes me as more deliberately structured than Rocannon’s World—more dialectical, more focused, but also centered much more on dialogue-monologue (similar to The Lathe of Heaven). Rocannon’s World is literally more fantastical than The Dispossessed. Do you think that Le Guin’s first novel has been overlooked as a book of ideas?
AN: The Dispossessed is certainly a novel about ideas. Ideas drive Shevek from one utopia to another, and power the book’s discursive engine. Rocannon’s World is less rhetorical, but every bit as intelligent. It’s not really a conversational book, and there aren’t too many meaningful arguments in it. To me, it is definitely neglected, and it’s interesting to think about why that is.
As you say, The Dispossessed is more conventionally binary. Rocannon’s World has two points of view, Rocannon and Semley, but these characters hardly meet at all, and never have an important conversation. Rocannon’s World is not about debate, it’s about losing one’s identity, and what it’s like to be an exile, and to live in a world where narratives are vanishing.
Rocannon lives out several roles within the book and his identity is chipped away completely, but none of this is really spoken about or described, so the reader has to understand these transformations, these movements from one narrative to another, for herself, she can’t compare what someone said to something said by someone else. The book does not have oratory, and I think it’s this implicitness that conceals the novel from its readers. There’s a way in which one reads the book, but may not have the words to understand what they are reading.
This is not an argument against arguing in books, even though, in the wrong hands, it can be a cheesy way to get ideas into a novel without actually embodying them. But Rocannon’s World is not a book that talks; it represents. Myths and stories overwrite each other and Rocannon has to keep transforming to adjust to them. At one point, he is abducted by what he thinks are angels, but—and I’m trying not to spoil this here—they turn out to be something very different. He only thinks they’re angels because they’re tall and thin and quiet and look golden, and their home is like a De Chirico city made by bees. He thinks they’re angels because his culture taught him angels look like that. The joke is that we, too, would think they’re angels, while they’re sucking out our blood. Like him, we’re living in the wrong myth, and in the wrong cosmology.
Every time a new reality befalls Rocannon—and they really do land on his head; this is an incredibly sad book—he has to shed another layer of himself. Both he and the reader feel how far he is from home, and how he’s never going back. Even at the end, when he is married, the marriage burns away the other lives he’d hoped to lead. One imagines he feels lonely on his wedding night. The last line of the book packs all the other narratives into itself and turns them into loss.
All this is mobilized but little of it is said. I don’t think Rocannon’s World is hard to read, exactly, but one may feel that major things are happening in it, without quite knowing what they are. That may turn some readers off.
Maybe the trendiness of Le Guin will reach this book. Another thing that makes the novel tricky is the way she deals with what we might call “Tolkien races.” That is an entirely different issue.
ET: Yeah, so there are these races in the novel that seem, at first anyway, like High Fantasy archetypes. There’s the Fiia, who are fair forest dwellers—they’re basically the Elves. And there are the “trogoldytes,” the Gdemiar, who live in caverns and aspire to various forms of technology—metalwork and basic engineering, for example. They’re like the Dwarfs. Even the humanish characters, the Liuar, are reminiscent of Tolkien’s human races—-there’s something epic or Nordic about the Liuar and their windsteeds.
But as you point out, “myths and stories overwrite each other” in this novel. We learn that the Fiia and the Gdemiar have split from an earlier ancestor, and are therefore “incomplete.” I think there’s a strong echo of Eloi and Morlocks here. Like Wells’s Time Traveler who preceded him, Rocannon becomes enmeshed in the people he’s trying to observe. And he also becomes enmeshed in that High Fantasy archetypal structure—he becomes The Hero with Transcendent Powers—but he pays a dear price for those powers. (Maybe “enmeshed” is the wrong metaphor. Maybe his identity “burns away” into a new one—to borrow your metaphor, which of course echoes literal narrative events in Rocannon’s World).
Rocannon’s World begins in the idiom of High Fantasy; the opening paragraph reads like the invocation of some fantastic muse—“How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?” The language then shifts into a kind of textbookese, offering a few descriptions of lifeforms from Handbook for Galactic Area Eight. These passages are anthropological, but also bureaucratic. The language then moves from bureaucratic “fact” into the realm of “legend.” Most of the prologue, the story of Semley’s necklace, transposes fantasy tropes into sci-fi territory in a way that’s unsettling or unexpected. We’re not talking about Star Wars here, but rather about viewpoints, ways of naming, ways of seeing. I suppose that’s a rough definition of anthropology. In a marvelous sequence, Le Guin shows us what interstellar space travel might look like to someone from a feudal Bronze Age society. She throws readers into a phenomenological description of an event that must be amazing and fucking terrifying—space travel! But she withholds naming it; instead the reader has to assimilate the language and remind himself, Oh, this is a spaceship. Semley doesn’t have the word spaceship. The next chapter punctures all that High Fantasy stuff, or reverses it. The fantastic shifts back into the bureaucratic language of Handbook for Galactic Area Eight. The rest of the narrative is Rocannon’s quest, in some sense, to overwrite the language of that book.
AN: You’re right, that space travel scene is outrageously good. Le Guin is so incredible.
The next two Hainish books, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, are maybe less about mythic identity and more about accepting that a new and multifarious acceptance of identity is essential in a complicated world, that everyone has to be their own David Bowie.
ET: So, do you think those next two novels show a, I don’t know, jeez, I hate the word, but a maturation in Le Guin’s writing? I think I know what you mean by everyone has to be their own David Bowie, but what do you mean?
AN: I think she starts to write books that are more dialectical, as we said. Books that kind of say what’s going on, instead of just enacting it.
By their own David Bowies, I guess I mean the characters choose who they become. Having an identity is a political act in Le Guin, and it’s stylized. It’s a performance. Mogien dies like Mogien; he “Mogiens,” he becomes his own verb and dies the courageous death he always wanted when he flies his flying cat into a helicopter. Maybe the highest compliment I can give Le Guin is that the death I just described–a man flies a cat into a helicopter—is, in fact, incredibly moving and beautiful.