(1996) Ursula LeGuin, Gollancz, £15.99, hrdbk, 253pp. ISBN 0 575 06301 7
This book consists of a series of four linked novellas about the planets Werel and Yeowe, and the struggle of people there to put their history of slavery and war behind them. The four stories take various aspects of the gradual breakdown of this slave culture as seen through the eyes of natives of the two worlds, and offworld members of the Ekumen, who are gradually trying to influence the cultures towards more civilised mores.
In the first story Betrayals, Yoss, a woman in retreat in her old age, finds herself gradually becoming entangled with Abberkam, a disgraced political leader. In Forgiveness Day, a rather spoiled young Ekumen envoy is held hostage with her dour native bodyguard. A Man of the People tells the story of a young Hainish man who leaves his homeworld and becomes an ambassador of the Ekumen on Yeowe, and a champion of the rights of women there. The final story, A Woman's Liberation, shares some characters with the previous one, and tells of a woman who escapes from slavery and eventually finds freedom on Yeowe.
Although in plot terms none of the stories are particularly complex, the characters are very well drawn, and there's a lot of subtlety in the development of the emotional relationships in these stories (with the possible exception of A Man of the People, which covers rather too much ground to make it anything other than impressionistic). Themes of forgiveness and liberation permeate the stories, which gives them an uplifting quality that LeGuin does not allow to slip into sentimentality or a New Age Panglossian view.
The highest praise I can think of is that this book is both true to science fiction and yet evokes parallels with similar situations today, such as South Africa, without being a cheap imitation of them.
Graham gives his take on the book here.
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