Rocannon’s World, by Ursula K. Le Guin

a purple-pink starry sky. a small comet streaks across. the foreground is a dark silhouette of mountains.

discussion of ideas; cw: talk of death; book spoilers likely

Rocannon’s World is one of the books in the Hainish Cycle, written by Ursula K. Le Guin. According to GoodreadsRocannon’s World is the first in the series, although according to some googling, it isn’t important to read them in order. I read her books a little at a time, spiritual texts that contain multitudes of hidden understandings. I chew on each paragraph over time. When I read A Wizard of Earthsea, it damn near ruined me for quite a while. I’m still affected by the words she wove together and I hope I never stop being affected by them.

I believe that one of the reasons that it’s not necessary to read the series in order is that there is spacetime travel that renders lifetimes almost meaningless in the traditional sense — time is linear but in one way for the liver of the life, and another entirely for the people who live in other places and in other whens. The universe that holds the stories within it is as finite a place as a universe can be (is it?), and this as well as the ideas expressed in the books are the threads that connect the stories to one another.

How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away? — planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

PROLOGUE: The Necklace

I suppose that one way to describe it, in my personal understanding, is that the way a story passed down word-for-word for generations upon generations holds a meaning that goes beyond the words themselves. Stories like those are as much metaphor as they are literal. A swelling of mythology and distant names and descriptors that can mean many things; it all depends, for you, on who you are and how you understand the world you find yourself in.

Rather than spoil the story by being literal in my musing, I wanted to think about some of the jewels of wisdom I glimpsed during my first read-through. It is probably more accurate to refer to them as seeds rather than jewels, because the more I think and reach for understanding, the more epiphanies can grow in my mind and affect my Self.

Observing the thing changes the thing

Rocannon, the person, is part of a scientific expedition to a planet that was surveyed and given a classification but not named as its people would name it. Rocannon is an outsider but interacts with the world as an outsider who is trying to listen, to understand, to learn as much as he can and to do as little harm as possible. He follows the traditions and uses the language of each race of people he meets as much as possible, and near the end of the story is given the terrible ability to hear and understand others in his mind, without spoken language, a structure informed by imagery and thoughtform and emotion and intent.

His experience on the world that was later named for him is not able to be as impartial or careful as he might have liked. Whatever his initial purpose was for visiting that world, he became intrinsically tied into the story of that world, as that story was told and understood and even foretold by the different races there.

There is no such thing as zero harm

Every action has a consequence — either you choose consciously to do something, or you act without thought; you may speak, react, respond, do, think, or something else, but no matter what you do, there is a response to the action of your choice. So it is with all choices.

And with every choice, some harm will occur. You may not be aware of the harm, or you may be very aware of the harm. Rocannon does harm simply by being on that world, by participating in the societies that are native there, by choosing and being changed and choosing from that new changed self. There is no such thing as doing no harm, not in this story, a kind of mirror of this mortal world of ours. There can only be reduction or mitigation or redress of harm, and that can only happen if we are aware of the possible directions in which harm could happen. We will never see all the threads of possibility, unless we become like Cassandra and cannot do anything but know things; and even to be Cassandra, to speak would do harm and not to speak would do harm.

Because harm will always occur, one must be able to fully own their choices, even and especially when they encounter the result of that harm. Choice without accountability is cowardice. It is to lie to yourself and to others.

Knowledge is a cliff-edge

As I mentioned above, Rocannon is gifted — and pays for — an ability he did not know that he was paying for (although he paid willingly, understanding the price but not what would be the payment), and as a result is able to know not only what he needs to know, but also knows what is probably worse: the moment of death of not just one person, but multiple people in their simultaneous dying.

Each person experiences the mystery of death differently, although I believe that the generality of the experience is the same. We go from life into death, by one means or another. My belief is in a world that perhaps layers underneath and around this one, a world where we exist when we don’t exist here in the state we call aliveness. Philosophical complicatedness aside, our individual emotional and spiritual and physical experience of the moment(s) of death are already profound, and to vicariously know and feel a multiplicity of deaths in one moment is enough to break a mind.

Somehow, Rocannon’s mind is not broken, but he is forever changed.

“Why do they think so?” he demanded. “Do the gods of the Liuar come with gray hair and crippled hands?” The laserbeam from the helicopter had caught him in the right wrist, and he had lost the use of his right hand almost entirely.

“Why not?” said Ganye with her proud, candid smile. “But the reason is that you came down the mountain.”

Chapter IX

I already want to go back and read this book again, but it needs time to sit with me as I hope to absorb as much as I’m able.

If you’ve read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts; you can respond here in a comment, or @ me on MastodonThank you for being here with me.

featured image is a photo by Vincentiu Solomon on Unsplash

Nix Kelley
Co-parent to multiple kids. Writer. Death doula. Member of the Order of the Good Death. Seeker on the Path of Light. Queer, non-binary, & trans.


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