Planet of Exile is a masterful piece of fantasy/science fiction world building for Ursula Le Guin spins her story, worlds, cultures, and each race’s animosities in flawless fashion. This novel is part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle.
The planet of Werel has 15 year winters and a 60 earth year year. The planet’s inhabitants are called Hilfs (Highly intelligent life forms) by the humans stranded on the planet (their ship had left in a struggle with mysterious invaders). Before every 15-year winter the Hilfs collect food and build Winter Cities on the ruins of their previous cities and prepare to defend themselves from the nomadic raiders who migrate en-mass south to avoid the winter and rape and pillage.
The human population, who have been on the planet for 600 years, is declining and can no longer defend themselves from these nomads. They attempt to enter into an alliance with the Hilfs against the nomads from the north who have–without precedent–banded together to capture the region. Rolery, a Hilf women, falls in love with the leader of the humans, Agat, and this brings tension to the alliance between the drastically different cultures.
What I have always found so amazing about all of Le Guin’s work is her superb world building skills. The culture of both sides can be inferred from gestures, simple word phrases, actions, and vivid description. She also employs delicately the racial animosities between the groups, again to illustrates the concepts and ideals of each culture, who have remained different despite living in close proximity for 600 years.
Without giving away important aspects of the story many ideas of the League (the organization humans that accidentally left the men stranded on the planet) in contacting less technologically progressed races is similar to the rules of first contact in Star Trek.
This is primarily a fantasy novel with a science fiction backdrop. The reader is immediately drawn into both societies struggles and deep melancholy befalls you when tragedy strikes. Le Guin’s human characters are artfully created and feel and act as humans and her created cultures fill her created worlds perfectly. I can think of no higher praise in the writing of social science fiction.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.