Planet of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
A tighter story than Rocannon’s World, with better-drawn characters, and more ambitious in its worldbuilding and themes.
The planet’s year is 60 Earth-years long, and while the stone-age nomadic tribes know how to deal with the turn of seasons, only the oldest among them can remember the previous winter by the time the next one comes along. Some handle winters by building a temporary city to live in for the season. Some handle them by migrating southward, raiding other tribes along the way.
One city is permanent, built by colonists from Earth generations ago, and home to the dwindling descendents of those who were left behind when their ship departed, never to return. The Alterrans are isolated and alone, keenly aware that they’re the aliens here. Their biochemistry is different enough that they still need nutritional supplements. They can’t interbreed with the native humanoids. They’re not even susceptible to local diseases, useful as that can be.
Change comes slowly, but when it does, it’s ovewhelming. The raiding tribes have gathered together, the beginning of a nation, and instead of just grabbing what they can along the way, they’re wiping out cities and taking them for their own.
The Alterrans and the nearest tribe have to band together, but they don’t trust each other. At all. Help the aliens? Work with the primitives? A proposed alliance is rejected, accepted, broken, rejected again, and ultimately forced on them as most of the second half of the book deals with the siege of Alterra. It’s grueling, both for the characters and the reader. In the end it’s adaptation that makes it possible to survive, leaving a door open to a better future.
Initially I wasn’t sure whether to round 3.5 stars up or down, but after reading City of Illusions (collected in the same volume), I really started to see how the two novels were connected thematically, which has helped me appreciate both of them more.