Ursula K. Le Guin is hardly afraid to tackle difficult topics. In fact, she delves into them with a fearless but controlled approach that forces us to look at painful subjects we may prefer not to. This time she is going straight for the jugular, exploring the sensitive subjects of freedom, slavery, oppression, sexual politics, and revolution. In the wrong hands this could easily become a heavy-handed polemic that might be unreadable.
However, Le Guin is far too skilled a writer to wield a cudgel — instead, she uses her scalpel to peel away layer after layer of ingrained societal norms as she explores just how human societies are affected by these topics, and leaving no side free of sin but shows how even the slavers victimize themselves as they indoctrinate their own children into the system. There are no purely evil people in her stories, but much cruel and unthinking behavior.
As with her other Hainish stories, in Four Ways to Forgiveness she uses the Envoys of the advanced space-faring Ekumen as the neutral observers of the more primitive native societies, determined to not take sides but forced to by circumstances. In these stories Envoys get kidnapped, tortured, and otherwise dragged into messy situations. In the end, we see just how cruel, damaging, and irrational slavery is, symbolized by reversing the usual pattern of our world with darker-skinned people enslaving lighter-skinned people.
Four Ways to Forgiveness introduces a pair of worlds named Werel and Yeowe. Werel was first to be populated by the Hainish in antiquity, and many generations later when the Hainish come back in contact, they discover that the Werelians have a firmly entrenched system of slavery. In fact, the shock of encountering these space-faring “aliens” prompts the Werelians to colonize the planet of Yeowe using an-all male population of slaves (which they label “assets”).
Though later female slaves are sent to join them, they have already developed an extremely masculine hierarchical and homosexual society, and the women are placed at the bottom of it. What is both surprising and upsetting is that even after the light-skinned Yeowe slaves stage a successful revolution, the women still find that their status of subservience does not change as much as hoped.
There are a lot of unpleasant and brutal scenes in Four Ways to Forgiveness — Le Guin really forces the reader to face the ugliness of societies built around oppression and abuse those unable to defend themselves. In the case of slaves, both men and women are abused and treated inhumanly, whereas among both slaves and slavers, women are victimized by men. The cycle of oppression leaves its psychological scars deep in people’s minds for generations. Approaching the issue from numerous angles, we see how it affects every individual in the story.
Eventually, each story comes to some form of resolution or rapprochement, and oftentimes individuals of very different backgrounds come to understand and even love others. While this can be properly labeled “understanding” or “empathizing,” I was a bit hard-put to identify “forgiveness” in an overt form in some cases. That would imply a victim forgiving a victimizer, I would think, and that didn’t seem to always be the case. Perhaps other readers can interpret the book’s title better than I can.
Of note, there is another story set in the same world of Werel and Yeowe called “Old Music and the Slave Women,” which fits very much into the same framework of the other stories and belongs together with them. It can be found in The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, along with three of the stories from Four Ways to Forgiveness, “Forgiveness Day,” “A Man of the People,” and “A Woman’s Liberation.” The first story, “Betrayals”, can be found in The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.
I listened to the audiobook versions of both available from Recorded Books, with The Found and the Lost narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan and Jefferson Mays, and The Unreal and the Real narrated by Tandy Cronyn. All do an excellent job as Le Guin’s stories are perfectly suited for reading aloud. The narrators’ voices are strong, direct, and passionate, and the characters and dialogue take center stage, reflecting Le Guin’s love of story-telling and poetry.
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.”