Fulfilment of my desire to read all of Ursula le Guin’s work continues apace, but this did not actually move me towards my goal… since as soon as I opened it I realised that I had read it before (in a double with Rocannon’s World). However, my memory being what it is, I couldn’t remember details, so I just kept on reading.
City kinda fits into the Hainish cycle, but doesn’t really. It’s set on an Earth that has been a part of the League of All Worlds – the general background for the Hainish novels – but Something Has Happened, far back in the past, such that humanity now appears to exist solely in isolated enclaves that have little to do with each other, let alone to do with an interplanetary society. Some of the Hainish novels mention an Enemy approaching, and there is rumour of an enemy on Earth too, but their connection, if any – ?
The novels begins with a strange man wandering out of the Forest into the clearing of Zove’s House, which is something that just doesn’t happen. Additionally, he has weird eyes, as shown by the cover there – yes, like a cat. (Note: I think the blurb accompanying this edition is atrociously misleading.) He is taken in, and taught to live as a man, because despite being fully grown he has no language or any other capabilities beyond those of an infant. They give him a name: Falk, meaning yellow. Eventually Falk leaves, in the manner of young men who feel they have a quest to complete, and his travels take him to various parts of the world – meeting new people, most of whom are far less welcoming than his original sponsors, and eventually getting to the city of the Shing, who may or may not be enemies. And there he learns a secret….
I like this story a lot, for all it’s not my favourite. I always enjoy le Guin’s imagined future societies, and the things she sees continuing: here, for example, the Older Canon, Taoism, and the Younger Canon, which appears to be bits of the Bible; bits and pieces of technology; occasional random names (Kansas!). Her people are often sketches but for all that they generally feel real; Parth, Falk’s main teacher, is only in the story for the first 25 pages, but she is vital and vibrant and alive. The plot is also sparse; I have been known to describe le Guin’s work as exquisite pencil drawings, especially when compared to the lavish oil paintings of much modern fantasy. Anyway, the story certainly doesn’t fill in all of the details of Falk’s learning or his quest: after 11 pages, she skips five years – I can well imagine some authors taking the first book of a novel to fill in that time with everything he learnt! There are some clever twists along the way, but I don’t really think they’re the main point, somehow. The story is definitely important, but ultimately I think it is the vehicle for demonstrating Falk’s character, how he changes and develops and deals with situations.
An interesting part of the le Guin canon, for sure.