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.