Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review: City of Illusions

Book Review: 'City of Illusions' by Ursula K. LeGuin

2 / 5 Stars

‘City of Illusions’ first was published in 1967; this Ace paperback (217 pp) was published in November, 1974. The cover artist is uncredited.

The novel opens on an intriguing note: a man - with unusual amber eyes, with slit pupils -stumbles out of the forest and into the encampment of a tribe of Amerindians led by Zove, Master of the House. The man – who is given the name Falk – is incoherent and crazed, the victim of a deliberate ‘mind wipe’ operation by parties unknown.

As time passes, Falk regains some of his faculties and is instructed in the ways of the tribe and their world. He learns that humanity is fragmented and dispersed, the consequence of the long-ago invasion and subjugation of the Earth by a mysterious race known as the Shing. Fragments of his lost memories begin to surface in Falk’s mind, and with them, the awareness that somewhere out in the vast wilderness of what used to be the USA, there is a city called Es Toch…..and in Es Toch, he will find the answers to his identity, and the reason for his mind-wiping.

But as Falk is to discover, not everyone believes the Shing even exist…..are they simply legends created to explain the downfall of civilization by other forces ? Is Es Toch real – or is Falk simply pursuing a mirage ?

Despite these troubling questions, Falk sets out alone on a journey into the wild to find Es Toch. But his travels will take him into regions where murderous bandits and tribesmen hold sway…….people who will think nothing of snuffing out the life of a lone trespasser……….

The first half of ‘City of Illusions’ is an engaging read, as the narrative centers on Falk’s quest for his identity, and his struggle to survive in the dangerous tracts of a far-future USA. 

Unfortunately, the second half of the novel is a disappointment, as the narrative becomes entirely static. The plot switches its focus to Falk’s confrontation with the new rulers of Earth, a confrontation waged with telepathy and psychological gamesmanship; there is much philosophizing about the role of memories in defining one’s sense of self, and whether a man who harbors two personalities in his mind can be truly considered an individual.

This melodramatic exploration of ‘innerspace’ was part and parcel of the New Wave approach to sf writing; at the time, it was considered a major step in the maturation of the genre from its juvenile preoccupations with ray guns and spaceships and alien monsters, into a body of ‘speculative fiction’ worthy of critical and scholarly analysis. While sf may indeed have need this revolution in style, it has tended to age poorly. It’s hard to see modern-day readers as having the patience to negotiate the slow-paced, self-consciously ‘writerly’ prose Le Guin employs in the second half of ‘City’.

Summing up, ‘City of Illusions’, while considerably more well-written than many sf novels of the mid-60s, doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement or imagination. But I suspect Le Guin fans may find it rewarding.

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