fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCity of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin science fiction book reviewsCity of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin

“You go to the place of the lie to find out the truth?”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s HAINISH CYCLE continues with City of Illusions, which I liked better than its predecessors, Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile. City of Illusions takes place on Earth sometimes in the far future after an alien invasion has killed off most of the people and has completely changed the Earth’s ecology, infrastructure, and geopolitical arrangement. There’s a large capital city run by an alien race called the Shing, but most of the humans are spread out and divided into small clusters in the hinterlands which have gone back to their natural state after Earth’s cities were destroyed. While there are futuristic technologies in the capital, the rest of the people live off the land without technological help and with only occasional glimpses of the advanced society that their ancestors knew before it decayed.

To prevent takeovers, the Shing do not allow the people to organize or even to communicate over long distances. If anyone attempts anything that threatens the government, they are arrested and, since the Shing do not allow the taking of human lives, they are “razed,” meaning their memories are wiped out. To keep humans subjugated, the Shing also use their powers to cast illusions and to lie with their minds, which is why their capitol city is called the City of Illusions.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOur story begins as a man with cat-like eyes wakes up in the wilderness and doesn’t know who or where he is. In fact, he doesn’t know anything — his mind is blank. His only potential clue is a gold ring he wears which tells him that he once belonged somewhere. When a wilderness family takes him in, they name him Falk and teach him how to be a man again (if he ever was a man — his eyes suggest at least some non-human genes). After several years, Falk decides to set out for the City of Illusions to find out who he is. Along the way he meets other types of people, experiences different cultures, and has some scary adventures. By the time he gets to the city, he has made a new life for himself, has made friends, has fallen in love, and has learned a lot about the world he lives in, but not any clues about himself.

When Falk meets the Shing in the City of Illusions, he discovers who he is, but he learns that he must choose between his old mostly unknown life and the new life he has been living for several years. He also learns that the aliens have a different story about what happened to Earth than the stories he has previously heard. It’s not easy to separate truth from lies or to know who can be trusted. Falk has some major dilemmas to resolve and some major choices to make.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe setting of City of Illusions — America’s ruined cities being gradually overtaken by forests — is appealing (reminds me of Gene Wolfe’s NEW SUN books) and so is Falk (especially when we find out who he is) who is developed better than the protagonists in the previous HAINISH CYCLE novels. It helps that Falk doesn’t need a backstory, so we’re not really expecting much there. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are particularly engaging and the villains seem inconsistent (e.g., their insistence that life is sacred doesn’t fit with their other beliefs and actions), but I enjoyed Falk’s travels and dilemmas nonetheless and I liked the ambiguous ending and how this story fills in some information we were left wondering about at the end of Planet of Exile. City of Illusions is short and fast-paced with Le Guin’s usual economy of words which I’ve always admired and which becomes more appreciated the more epic fantasy I read.

I listened to Blackstone Audio’s excellent production narrated by Stefan Rudnicki. City of Illusions refers to events that occurred in Planet of Exile and is sort of a sequel. It’s not necessary, but it’d be helpful to read that book first.

City of Illusions — (1967) Earth, like the rest of the Known Worlds, has fallen to the Shing. Scattered here and there, small groups of humans live in a state of semi-barbarism. They have lost the skills, science and knowledge that had been Earth’s in the golden age of the League of Worlds, and whenever a colony of humans tries to rekindle the embers of a half-forgotten technology, the Shing, with their strange, mindlying power, crush them out. There is one man who can stand against the malign Shing, but he is an alien with amber eyes and must first prove to paranoid humanity that he himself is not a creature of the Shing.

The Hainish Cycle — (1966-2000) From Wikipedia: The Hainish Cycle consists of a number of science fiction novels and stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is set in an alternate history/future history in which civilizations of human beings on a number of nearby stars, including Terra (Earth), are contacting each other for the first time and establishing diplomatic relations, setting up a confederacy under the guidance of the oldest of the human worlds, peaceful Hain. In this history, human beings did not evolve on Earth but were the result of interstellar colonies planted by Hain long ago, which was followed by a long period when interstellar travel ceased. Some of the races have new genetic traits, a result of ancient Hainish experiments in genetic engineering, including a people who can dream while awake, and a world of androgynous people who only come into active sexuality once a month, and can choose their gender. In keeping with Le Guin’s soft science fiction style, the setting is used primarily to explore anthropological and sociological ideas. The Hainish novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed have won literary awards, as have the novella The Word for World Is Forest and the short story The Day Before the Revolution. Le Guin herself has discounted the idea of a “Hainish Cycle”, writing on her website that “The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones.”

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  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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