Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ursula Leguin. Planet of Exile (1968)

     Ursula Leguin. Planet of Exile (1968) One thing Leguin does extremely well: she imagines whole societies, from the inside out. In this book, we have the terrans, marooned on a planet with a 60 year orbital period; and the local aboriginals, the hilfs (“highly intelligent life forms”).
     The plot involves a mating between Jakob Alterra, the leader of the dwindling human colony, barely holding out in the city by the sea, and facing probable extinction after 100 generations on the planet; and Rolery, the granddaughter of Wold, the hilf chieftain of the Tevara (both place and tribal name), who had a terran wife (she died in childbirth). The coming winter, with attacks from the Gaals, another race of indigenes, complicates the story, and provides the opportunity and impetus for the terrans and the hilfs to co-operate in holding off the Gaals, who have, for the first time ever, united under one leader, have destroyed the allies of Tevara, and want to loot it of grain and people on their migration south.
      The book feels thin and incomplete, it’s hardly more than a novella. We would like to know a good deal more about the hinted at undercurrents of desire and conflict in both societies, and a good deal more of the back story. There is a brief speculation that the star’s radiation has pushed humans into adapting to the local bio-chemistry, and that Jakob and Rolery will have children. The last line makes clear that Jakob thinks of the planet as his home. It is no longer a Planet of Exile.
     Leguin gives us the events from several human and hilf points of view, which enables us to feel and imagine living on an alien world in contact with an alien society. Of course, the hilfs aren’t really that alien. Leguin (the daughter of anthropologists) invents both societies as variations of human ones. Still, the POV trick works: we briefly engage in the lives of the characters, and we care enough about them to be glad that Jakob and Rolery will found a family, that terrans and hilfs will produce a hybrid race. This compensates for the skimpiness of the narrative as a whole. **½ (2010)

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