Starscape (Tom Doherty’s YA imprint) presents The Eye of the Heron as a book for ages 10 and above. While the story is straightforward enough, the philosophical ideas that underpin the story are quite complex, so The Eye of the Heron is quite an interesting read for the more mature reader as well. Le Guin does not waste any words in telling the story, she delivers a to-the-point but surprisingly complex novel. If you read it at age 10, you’ll probably see it in a different light now.
The Eye of the Heron is set on a planet that was fairly recently colonized. Le Guin doesn’t mention a year but sometime in the 22nd century seems reasonable. Two waves of colonists have settled a small area of the planet. One group consists of criminals from a nation that covers South America, sent on a one way trip to dispose of them. Several decades later a new group of undesirables arrives. It consists of political activists sent to the planet when one of Earth’s governments feel threatened by their movement.
The planet they are stranded on does not appear to have any large land animals, and the creatures that do inhabit the world are mostly harmless, a fact that saves the early colonists from dying out completely. Hunger takes quite a few nonetheless. After the second group of colonists arrive, an interesting society forms. Or rather, two interesting societies. The main settlement of the planet is ruled by an aristocracy descendent from the first group of colonists and provides most of the goods for the community. The second group of colonists have taken over agriculture and live according to the principles that got them sent to the planet, a blend of pacifistic and anarchistic ideas. The city dwellers generally look down on the farmers and seem to think they rule the entire community. The farmers pretty much ignore that idea and work for what they consider is best for society. In general everybody seems to be getting along well enough, but under the surface the situation is far from ideal.
The main character of The Eye of the Heron is Luz, the daughter of one of the most influential men in the city. The city aristocrats are quite protective of their daughters. Their role in society is mostly seen as mothers and housekeepers. Women are supposed to be weak, obedient and, above all, uninterested in running the community. Luz is none of these things. She is beyond the age where a proper girl should be married and does not intend to conform to society’s standards in that respect. Under the influence of Lev, one of the most promising young men in the rural community, her ideas become even more radical. Lev is one of the driving forces behind the plan to set up a new colony, an initiative very much discouraged by the city. They have their own ideas about expansion and are ready to do violence to see them become reality. Conflict is inevitable as each party tries to further its cause in terms the other doesn’t recognize as such.
The conflict in this novel is a very strange one. At first glance one wonders how such a small group of people with an entire planet at their disposal can get embroiled in a conflict that has overpopulation at its core. They may have a planet at their disposal, but it offers them little in the way of resources. To survive, people need other people, which puts a brake on the level of violence a society can tolerate. After all, if nobody is producing anything, there is nobody to steal from either. The level of dependency on others is such that exile from the community means death. When the re-emerging violent tactics of the city’s rules fail to provoke the expected response, the city doesn’t quite know how to handle the situation. On the other hand, it is quite clear that the farmers’ pacifist approach isn’t offering all the answers either. At least not to Luz.
Le Guin manages to cover these complex philosophical and political ideas in a relatively short novel. The interactions between the characters and the way this society works give the reader plenty of food for thought. The Eye of the Heron is a well written story that has a lot to offer for readers of various ages. I would say it is one of those books that you can read several times and discover something new on each reading.