Planet of Exile is a novel in Ursula Le Guin’s HAINISH CYCLE and one of the author’s first published books. In this story, a colony of humans has been stranded for many years on the planet Werel, which has such a long orbit around its sun that one year is like 60 Earth years. These humans, gently led by Jakob Agat, live in a city surrounded by a stone wall. Because of the conditions on Werel, especially the effect of its sun’s radiation on human genes, their colony is dwindling. The humans share the planet with two other humanoid species. They have no contact with the Gaal, a nomadic tribe, and they have a tense but sometimes cooperative relationship with the Tevarans.
The planet is moving into its harsh winter phase, which will last about 15 years. Usually when this happens the nomadic Gaal pass by the human city on their way south. But this year there is a rumor that the Gaal do not plan to migrate, but rather to conquer the humans and Tevarans and take their cities for themselves. Jakob Agat hopes the humans and Tevarans can set aside their differences and suspicions and work together to defeat the Gaal. But when he falls in love with Rolery, granddaughter of the Tevaran leader, tensions flare.
If you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s work, I recommend reading Planet of Exile — it’s interesting to see how this excellent writer got her start. However, if you’re new to Le Guin, don’t start here. Her later work is so much better. In Planet of Exile, her world-building and character development has already improved from what we saw in Rocannon’s World, the first of the HAINISH CYCLE books, but it still lacks the vividness of her later works. For example, Jakob’s and Rolery’s love-at-first-sight relationship has no substance to it. I never felt it and wasn’t convinced that Jakob and Rolery felt it either.
Perhaps this is because Le Guin’s main interest in these HAINISH novels isn’t to tell a love story, but to use science fiction to explore cultural anthropological themes. This is something that she also does better in later novels. Here, as in Rocannon’s World, her races and cultures seem too unnaturally distinct and isolated to be living so close together on the same planet.
I have to say that if Planet of Exile wasn’t written by Ursula Le Guin, I probably wouldn’t recommend it at all, but I love Le Guin’s prose and I find it fascinating to compare her earlier and later works. I think that most of her fans will feel the same way. Planet of Exile is short and simple — an easy read. Again, if you’re not a fan yet, don’t start here; I suggest starting with THE EARTHSEA CYCLE or ANNALS OF THE WESTERN SHORE.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version read by the excellent Steven Hoye and Carrington MacDuffie. This was a very nice production. All of the HAINISH CYCLE books are available on audio. Each of them can stand alone, so you don’t have to read them in any particular order, but Planet of Exile acts as a prequel to City of Illusions. I’ll be reading that one soon.
We’re on the backwater planet Werel, where a human colony from Earth landed some 600 years ago, dropped off by a starship than then left them to fight an unnamed enemy of humanity. Stranded ever since, and having lost all communications with galactic society, this group is slowly dying out, unable to thrive in Werel’s environment (among other things, the rate of spontaneous abortion and stillbirths is extremely high). They’re holding on to as much technology as they are able, but are slowly losing ground.
Werel also contains other tribes of humans in a primitive, superstitious pre-wheel society. These humans have been on the planet far longer, seeded by the Hainish galactic civilization countless millennia ago. There’s cautious trading and relations between the more recent arrivals, but also deep suspicion of the “farborn” by the natives, with their blue-black skins and technology that the natives don’t comprehend. Their peoples have been separated for so long that the farborn can’t successfully have children with the natives, who they call hilfs (highly intelligent life forms).
The unique thing about Werel is that one of its years is equivalent to 60 normal Earth years. So every season lasts for 15 years, and Winter is coming ― which is truly brutal; everyone just hunkers down and survives on the food they’ve been able to store. But now word has come that a group of barbaric nomads, the Gaal, has organized into a mass army and is marching on both the farborn and the local natives, killing everyone in their path.
The farborn and the local hilfs make a tentative, hard-won deal to cooperate in fighting the Gaal. That deal violently falls apart when Agat Alterra and Rolery, a farborn man and a hilf woman, enter into what seems to be a very ill-advised fling, forbidden by hilf society on pain of death. Now the barbarians are at the door, and everyone’s in trouble.
Initially I was mentally dinging this novel for relying on insta-love, but it’s not really that. It’s more infatuation and loneliness on the part of both Agat and Rolery, which is eminently believable. It begins as a temporary relationship, a coming together for comfort and sex, though it’s deeper and more meaningful than just a fling. But both Rolery and Agat think their secret relationship won’t ― can’t ― last. As everything goes south, literally and figuratively, they may find out differently.
Planet of Exile is the second novel in the two-volume Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories collection that I’m currently making my way through. At the end of the first volume is a fascinating commentary, written by Le Guin in the 70s, in which she chides herself for falling into fairly traditional sexual roles with this novel. However, as Le Guin also points out, Rolery, as quiet as she is, has grit and determination, and is much more of an active change catalyst than she may seem to be at first glance.
One of the more interesting aspects of Planet of Exile is anthropological: Le Guin’s creation of a primitive human society and what happens when it exists side by side with, but relatively separated from, a more advanced civilization. The Notes section at the end of the Hainish Novels and Stories collection point out some of the features of the hilf society that echo actual native cultures on Earth, including avoiding direct eye contact (considered an aggressive gesture in many Native American groups) and the ritual of stone-pounding.
Planet of Exile is a very short novel, one of Le Guin’s earliest. The scientific underpinnings of this tale were rather suspect in several ways; you just have to roll with them. But I still enjoyed the read; even in her early days, Le Guin’s emerging talent is clear. Points to her for including an interracial romance in a 1966 science fiction novel, and also for having the black people be the far more advanced civilization. In the 60s, that was significant.
Like Kat, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Planet of Exile as a stand-alone read, but read in conjunction with City of Illusions, which deals with some travelers from Werel many generations later, its impact on me was greatly enhanced.
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.”