They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate, and lacking any first-person forms for the verb ‘to be unable.’ There were no gods in their legends, only heroes.
I was surprised to find out that Ursula K. Le Guin’s first published novel was an Ace Double—G-574, paired with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign. Much like Davidson’s half, Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World is more science fantasy than science fiction, a sword-and-planet romp that includes many of the tropes we now associate with high fantasy literature. Yet it still fits into her Hainish Cycle, a body of works that includes her award winners The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. It sprung from “Semley’s Necklace,” a short in a 1964 issue of Amazing that became the prologue to Rocannon’s World. It’s a good introduction because, reading it, you dive into the exotic yet familiar world of Le Guin’s creation where “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (to quote Clarke).
An ethnologist working for the League of All Worlds, Rocannon’s survey mission to the planet Fomalhaut II went smoothly… until an unknown adversary destroyed his spaceship from orbit, killing his companions. Stranded on this primitive alien planet, Rocannon sets out to track down the base of this enemy somewhere on the other side of the planet, in hopes that he can get to their ‘ansible’—a device which can send communications at FTL speeds—so he can warn the League. Coming with him is the local feudal lord Mogien and his men-at-arms; riding cat-horse hybrids called windsteeds, the small group must travel through perilous, unmapped continents to reach the enemy encampment. And once there, what good are Bronze Age-level weapons against lasers and attack helicopters? These are near-insurmountable odds, but Rocannon will not let his companions’ deaths go unpunished; he may lose that which he values most, but Rocannon will stop these aggressors…
Rocannon’s World falls into the sub-genre of sword-and-planet that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, among others, carved out in the pulps: an Earthman of the future finds himself stranded on a primitive (bronze/iron age) planet, forced to trek in search of some goal on the other side of the world, finding strange creatures and customs—and plenty of adventure—along the way. As such, it has a lot of the tropes of a fantasy novel: swordfights and magic (psychic) powers and strange beasts, with a science fiction twist. For example, the “dwarf” equivalents recieved cultural advancement in the form of Industrial Age technology from the League of All Worlds, until Rocannon’s recommendations put a stop to it. Purists may be dissatisfied by the lack of hard science or traditional science fiction themes; all others will probably be too distracted by the adventure and rich-world building to care.
Said worldbuilding and alien cultures are where the book feels most like Le Guin. The daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin’s works are less focused on the “hard” sciences and more on the “soft” ones—anthropology, sociology, and psychology in particular. There’s an array of species living on Fomalhaut II, each with their own distinct culture and society painted in broad strokes—the strange caste system between the humanoid species, the half-sized humanoids with latent telepathy, the strange race of insectoid builders both blind and deaf. The prose also felt like pure Le Guin; a bit rough perhaps, but it has her cleverness and flow. See this segment about Rocannon, going under the name Olhor (“wanderer”), with cryptic references to the novel’s elements:
The little Name-Eaters, the Kiemhrir, these are in old songs we sing from mind to mind, but not the Winged Ones. The friends, but not the enemies. The sunlight, not the dark. And I am companion of Olhor who goes southward into the legends, bearing no sword. I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness. I am only a half-person. I cannot go farther than the hills. I cannot go into the high places with you, Olhor!
Le Guin’s writing evokes the fantastic and the wonder of this world; romanticized but not cloying or sappy, flowing like a rich tapestry yet never over-wrought or over-written. It bounds along full of energy, a fast-paced novel that kept me invigorated until its stunning conclusion. The finale is a series of wicked twists, defying my expectations and adding emotional weight to the story. “And I wish never to again be where I might hear the voices of my enemies…” becomes a powerful conclusion, a reference not to what has been lost but what he gained during his journey.
And a few comments on “Semley’s Jewel,” the short story turned prologue, in which princess Semley sets out to get a family heirloom back. To do so, she needs help from the subterranean, dwarf-like Gdemiar, whose technology was advanced to the Industrial Age… and who were gifted a small starship which can visit the interstellar museum where the necklace was donated. It’s science fiction seen through the lens of fantasy, and in a twist on the Rip-van-Winkle magical sleep theme, Semley’s trip across the black seas of night involves near-lightspeed time dilation, and she returns home to find years have passed. Rocannon collects the necklace during his survey trip, and while it’s referenced several times during his journey it failed to turn out to be some magical macguffin as I expected. Props to Le Guin for side-stepping that trope, though there are two more books in my omnibus version, and for all I know the necklace may be back.
Le Guin’s inauspicious début is a pretty good novel; it doesn’t stand out as a masterwork like so many of her later books, but it treads the planetary romance/sword-and-planet path without devolving into a hackneyed pastiche. The book does exactly what it says on the tin: flying cats, swords and blasters, adventure and mystery, its finale an unexpected surprise, delivered in Le Guin’s top-notch prose. In terms of planetary romance, Le Guin was no Leigh Brackett—then again, as her later novels prove, she was capable of writing far greater books than many SF writers can dream of. While it has some rough edges, Rocannon’s World does two things well: it foreshadows Le Guin’s later greatness, and tells a pretty decent SF adventure story. If you’re like me and enjoy a good planetary romance, you’ll probably love it. Otherwise, I’ll point you at the rest of Le Guin’s oeuvre and let you run wild.