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? Continue reading “A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World”