City of Illusions

Ursula K. Le Guin


Now I understand why these three Hainish novels are collected in a single book. Not just because they were earlier and not as famous as, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, but because they’re linked by more than just the setting. In a way, City of Illusions is the flip side to Planet of Exile: Instead of a single city of people from Earth just trying to stay alive on a primitive world, this time Earth is the (mostly) primitive world, with a single city run by the alien conquerors – at least, that’s what the scattered humans believe, and even then they know their records are fragmented and probably falsified.

This is a post-apocalyptic world, but one that’s had thousands of years for nature to recover. The story begins not in a forbidding desert, but a small village in a clearing within the vast forest that has regrown over eastern North America. People still have some technology, but it’s all used on a small scale.

At first, it seems like a travelogue showing different ways humans have adapted to living in a world where they simply can’t build large settlements. The small friendly villages in the forest, the fortresses that attack outsiders, the lone man living in the wilderness where his high-level empathic powers won’t overwhelm him, the violent nomads of the plains, the wanderers, the slightly larger village with a self-proclaimed “prince,” the enigmatic beekeepers, and of course the hangers-on surrounding the City.

But once Falk reaches the City, it starts to become clear it’s not just about different types of societies. It’s about isolation, adaptation, kindness, cruelty, trust and hope, and above all, how to piece together the truth – or at least how to pick out the lies. Illusions can highlight truths or disguise them. Falk is overwhelmed by the layers of deception and betrayal, knows he’s being manipulated, and knows he’s outclassed. All he can do is look for the flaws and find a few threads to expose bits of truth, and hope he can use them.

Are the Shing really aliens? Why are they really here? Who wiped Falk’s memory, and why? And why would the Shing be willing to unlock his past?

And how can you be yourself when you don’t know who you really are?

Definitely worth reading, whether you’ve read Planet of Exile or not, though I think the later chapters in particular benefit from having read both.