Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Eye of the Heron - Ursula K. Le Guin

I'm running another older review tonight. I may actually get around to writing a second review this week, but then again, I may not. With one more full week until my vacation I've found I really, really need some time off. So instead of staring at a half-hearted attempt of a review I've dug up one of the older ones. This one was originally written in December 2008 and as usual, did need some editing.

I picked up this very cheap copy of the Starscape edition (Tom Doherty’s YA imprint) of The Eye of the Heron a while ago, when I was actually looking for something else. Books have a way of ambushing you like that. Le Guin is of course one of the greats of speculative fiction but this is actually the first of her novels I have read. Starscape presents this as a book for ages 10 and above but while the story is straightforward enough, the philosophical ideas that underpin the story are quite complex. It 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 do read it at age 10, I suggest returning to it a few years later, you’ll probably see it in a different light then.

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 consisted 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 is 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 on it 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 arrives 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, blend 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.

The main character in the book 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 would 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 on expansion and are ready to do violence to see them become reality. Conflict is inevitable as each party tries to further it’s 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 it’s core. They may have a planet at their disposal, it offers them little in the way of resources however. To survive people need other people. It 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 the pacifist approach of the farmers isn’t offering all the answers either. At least not to Luz.

The choice of themes is as far as I can tell not surprising for Le Guin. She does manage to cover these complex philosophical and political ideas in a relatively short novel in such a way that the interactions between the characters we witness and the way this society works give the reader plenty of food for thought. The structure of the novel is a bit odd though. You could be forgiven for thinking both Luz and Lev are the main characters in this book. After Lev, without giving too much away, follows the example of the men that inspired his ideology, it turns out the feminist theme in the book is more important than it appeared to be. Somehow I don’t think Le Guin had that in mind when she started writing this novel.

Despite one of the characters getting away from the author this book was an interesting introduction to Le Guin’s writing for me. The Eye of the Heron is a well written story that has a lot to offer for reader's 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. It seems I will have to add some more of Le Guin’s books to my ever growing to be read list. Good thing there is a copy of The Dispossessed on the to read stack.

Book Details
Title: The Eye of the Heron
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Starscape
Pages: 179
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0765-34612-5
First published: 1978

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