Wednesday, 13 February 2013

City of Illusions

In the years after the Second World War, science fiction was essentially a pulp genre.  Magazines and niche publishers put out small print runs of short stories and slim novels.  Most of the writing was clunky, the stories strong on technological marvels and weak on plot and characterisation. 

This all started to change in the 1960s.  Not all at once and not everywhere - there is still plenty of pulp science fiction written even now - but a new breed of writers started to focus more on the fiction and less on the science.  Philip K Dick's best novels are masterpieces of imagination, beautifully characterised and exploring issues of drug use, mental health, religion and the meaning of being human.  His school-mate Ursula Le Guin wrote stories of lyrical beauty and moral depth.

Some legacies of the pulp era remained.  Circulations were still small, and if they wanted to make a living from their writing they had to keep churning it out.  Novels were short, and frequent.  Expanding Novel Syndrome, which blights a lot of more recent authors (JK Rowling for example) and bloats their novels into lumbering epics, was thankfully not an option.  Dick averaged a novel every year between 1955 and his death in 1982, along with numerous short stories, and another ten novels were published posthumously.  Many of them were dire, some were brilliant.  Neither he nor his publishers could afford to be choosy. 

Le Guin's early output was similar, although she slowed down after 1975.  She published twelve slim novels between 1966 and 1976.  Unlike Dick she managed  to maintain a consistent quality.   These twelve novels included the first three of the Earthsea stories and the first six of the "Hainish" novels including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, the two novels which made her famous. 

Her first three published novels were all set in what has come to be called the Hainish "world" - Rocannon's World  and Planet of Exile, both published in 1966, and City of Illusions which appeared the following year.  All three were out of print for some years until 1996 when Tor republished them in a single volume entitled Worlds of Exile and Illusion.  Between them they take up fewer than 400 pages, yet you never feel rushed or cheated by their brevity.  Her lucid prose, her finely tuned pacing, her way of making you feel with her characters and her judicious use of  detail quickly immerse you in her worlds and her stories.

The term "Hainish" is a little misleading in relation to these early stories, as the Hain are merely one member of a galactic coalition.  This alliance is between peoples who are very similar - humanoid in appearance, with just enough variation that they can tell each other apart and cannot normally interbreed.  Nor are these novels part of a "series" in the strict sense of the term - although they take place in the same imaginary world and there are some links between them, each is a separate story. 

I enjoyed both Rocannan's World and Planet of Exile, which I was reading for the first time.  However, City of Illusions has a special place in my heart.  It is the first Le Guin novel I ever read and despite others being more celebrated it is still my favourite. 

It takes place on Earth in the far future.  The planet, it seems, has gone from a technologically advanced space-travelling civilisation to a sparsely populated ruin.  Its people live in small communities, mutually suspicious, remnants of advanced technology existing alongside cultures at various stages of primitivity.  The world is apparently dominated by an invader species, the Shing, who the people of earth hold to be masters of deceit.  But who are the Shing, where do they come from, how many of them are there, and do they exist at all?

One morning a man appears on the edge of a clearing.  His mind is completely empty, he is like a huge baby unable to speak or even feed himself.  The people of the settlement take him in and care for him, naming him 'Falk' (their word for yellow) because of his strange yellow eyes.  Within five years he is once again a functioning adult, but with no memories from before his arrival in the clearing.  Who is he, and how did he get there? 

To answer this riddle he sets out on a hazardous journey to Es Toch, the City of Illusions.  I won't tell you what happens because you might like to find out for yourself.  In any case the plot, while interesting, is really the string on which Le Guin hangs a number of questions.  How can you tell truth from lies?  What is the real state of affairs in a world ruled by deception?  If its rulers lie openly, how can you know when they are telling you the truth?  How do you know who to trust, or what to believe?  Is it possible for an honest and naive person to survive in a jaded, suspicious world?  Falk has to navigate this hall of mirrors with an inherent disadvantage - he does not even know who or what he is. 

The best science fiction is not about distant galaxies and the wonders of space travel, it is about us.  Falk's problem is ours also.  Amidst the machinations of Gillard and Abbott, of Obama and Putin, of the climate skeptics and climate warriors, of Netanyahu and Abbas, what is the truth?  What is really going on in this world?  Are the rulers we see the real rulers, and are they who they appear to be in any case?  Who can we trust, who will kill us out of fear and suspicion, and who is just trying to exploit us for their own devious ends?

Perhaps our answer is the same as Falk's.  Before we can answer these questions, we need to know who we are.

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