Rocannon’s World, published in 1966, is Ursula Le Guin’s debut novel and the first in her HAINISH CYCLE. The story describes how Rocannon, an ethnographer, became stranded on the planet he was charting when a spaceship from Faraday, a rogue planet that is an enemy to the League of All Worlds, blew up his spaceship and the rest of his crew. Rocannon thinks he’s trapped forever until he sees a helicopter and realizes that Faraday must have a secret base on the planet. If he can find it, he can use its ansible to communicate with the League, not only letting them know that he lives, but also the location of the secret enemy base. (Fun Fact: This is the book that one of Orson Scott Card’s characters in Ender’s Game refers to when he mentions that the word “ansible” came out of an old book. Card enjoys playing this little game with SFF fans. I read Rocannon’s World after I read Ender’s Game, so this was an “ah-ha!” moment for me.)
So Rocannon collects a small group of companions and sets out across the planet on a quest to find the enemy base. Along the way he meets a few different cultures, some who are typical residents of high fantasy literature — castle-dwelling lords of a feudal society; the Fiia, who are like elves; the underground Clay People, who are like dwarves, etc. He tries to document information about these species and cultures as he goes (as usual, Le Guin’s anthropological interests are clear), but the difficulty of his quest interferes. He suffers much loss and tragedy along the way. Will he find the enemy base? Will he be rescued, or will he live on this planet forever? What Rocannon gets out of his mission is not something he expected.
Rocannon’s World has elements of both science fiction and fantasy — a technologically advanced star-traveler visits and charts the unknown species on a backward planet. The episodic plot, which sort of jumps from one cultural experience to the next, is entertaining, but not always compelling or believable. All these different HILFs (Highly Intelligent Life Forms) on one small planet, isolated from each other with no apparent cooperation or competition? Hard to believe.
Le Guin’s signature epigrammatic style is on display in Rocannon’s World, but her creativity and deep character development isn’t up to the level we’ll see later in her career. For example, I was disappointed to discover that this unknown planet was inhabited mostly by races who are recognizable from Earth’s history or mythology.
The prologue to Rocannon’s World is the short story “Semley’s Necklace,” which was published in 1964 in Amazing Stories. It tells of a young queen named Semley who met Rocannon when she went to the Clay People to ask them to help her claim a sapphire necklace that was her inheritance. They take her on a spaceship to retrieve the jewels and when she returns home with the necklace she gets an unpleasant lesson in space-time relativity. I liked this story, especially the intermingling of science fiction and fantasy, and I liked how this carried over to Rocannon’s story — he was also personally affected by the effects of space-time relativity.
Rocannon’s World is not up to Le Guin’s later level, but it’s enjoyable enough and a worthy read just because of its historical value as Le Guin’s debut novel. I listened to Stefan Rudnicki narrate Blackstone Audio’s version which is five hours long. Rudnicki was very good, as always.