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Literature / Hainish

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The Hainish Universe is The 'Verse in which many of Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction novels and short stories are set.

The setting is a galaxy in which intelligent humanoid life is common due to the colonizing efforts of a species from a planet known as Hain; Earth itself is a Lost Colony of the Hainish. Early novels feature an instance of The Federation called the League of All Worlds, which is overthrown by alien invaders in City of Illusions; later stories feature a new federation called the Ekumen, led by the Hainish.

The technology that allows both federations to exist is the "ansible", which allows instantaneous ("answerable") communication over interstellar distances.note  Non-lethal Faster-Than-Light Travel is not possible for humans; a form of "not as fast as light travel" exists which allows people to travel between stars in what seems to them a very short time but objectively takes many years. The decision to travel to another planet in person is thus not taken lightly, as it means leaving behind friends and family and a way of life that will be much changed if not gone entirely when (or if) one returns.

It's sometimes referred to as the "Hainish Cycle", but the author herself discounts that description, because there isn't a clear plot arc through the stories, which were written in no particular order and (apart from a few subseries or clusters of related stories) don't have much direct connection with each other. Most of the stories take place on a single planet, with the League or the Ekumen as a backdrop.

Planets featured include:

  • Gethen, where the people are physically asexual most of the time, but develop sexual characteristics (with each individual being both male and female multiple times over the course of their life) when they're in heat. (The Left Hand of Darkness, "Winter's King", "Coming of Age in Karhide")
  • O, whose society is divided into the immutable moieties called "Morning" and "Evening." A marriage on O consists of a Morning man and woman and an Evening man and woman, arranged so that each person has both a husband and wife of the opposite moiety, both of whom they're expected to be sexually involved with, and one additional spouse of the opposite gender (but the same moiety) with whom they're forbidden to be sexually involved. ("Another Story", "Unchosen Love", "Mountain Ways")
  • Seggri, where the natural birthrate (possibly following the influence of some long-dead Hainish geneticist) produces ten times as many women as men, and men are second-class citizens, respected for their physical appearance but regarded as not having much between the ears. ("The Matter of Seggri")
  • Werel and Yeowe, two planets in one star system, where a dark-skinned race has enslaved a lighter-skinned race. ("Betrayals", "Forgiveness Day", "A Man of the People", "A Woman's Liberation", "Old Music and the Slave Women")
  • A different planet also called Werel, with two humanoid races. One was planted aeons ago by the Hainish, the other arrived much more recently from Earth. (Planet of Exile, City of Illusions)
  • Urras and Anarres, two planets that are moons of one another. The arid Anarres was settled in recent history by dissidents from the far more Earthlike Urras. (The Dispossessed)

    Works in publication order 
  • "The Dowry of Angyar" (aka "Semley's Necklace") (1964)
  • Rocannon's World (1966)
  • Planet of Exile (1966)
  • City of Illusions (1967)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  • "Winter's King" (1969)
  • "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" (1971)
  • "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972)
  • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)
  • "The Day Before the Revolution" (1974)
  • "The Shobies' Story" (1990)
  • "Dancing to Ganam" (1993)
  • "The Matter of Seggri" (1994)
  • "Unchosen Love" (1994)
  • "Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" (1994)
  • "Solitude" (1994)
  • "Betrayals" (1994)
  • "Forgiveness Day" (1994)
  • "A Man of the People" (1995)
  • "A Woman's Liberation" (1995)
  • "Coming of Age in Karhide" (1995)
  • "Mountain Ways" (1996)
  • "Old Music and the Slave Women" (1999)
  • The Telling (2000)

Works in the Hainish 'verse with their own pages:

Other works in the Hainish 'verse contain examples of:

  • Abusive Precursors: The ancient Hainish apparently had a penchant for "social experiments" based on founding colonies with no knowledge of their Hainish legacy and subject to various unusual conditions, sometimes involving genetic engineering. Point-of-view characters usually feel uneasy when they observe the resulting societies and figure it out.
  • After the End: "Solitude" takes place on the planet Eleven-Soro, well after a societal collapse, the cause of which is never exactly spelled out but which is implied to have been due largely to massive overpopulation.
  • Alien Gender Confusion: The most obvious example is Gethen, where the people have no concept of gender, a different sexual makeup from the rest of the Hainish planets, and they have a difficult time understanding the permanent maleness of the Hain's first proper ambassador.
    • Played with on the planet O, which is one of a few planets mentioned that have a moiety system, which divides the population into two immutable halves. But on O, what exactly do the moieties "Evening" and "Morning" signify? Le Guin's narrators never say, but to them, it's all-important.
  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: First contact teams are often sent to rather primitive planets, and many such civilizations are incorporated in the interstellar civilization — since it believes that even non-technological races have a lot to contribute (arts or philosophy). However, there is an embargo on teaching technology without authorization by the government. Planet of Exile demonstrates the point when a human is wounded by an enemy dart, and must be careful, since while the natives use no poisons, the Earth Lost Colony does, and the used darts are sometimes fired back.
  • Alternative Calendar:
    • In Planet of Exile, Werel has a 400 day lunar cycle and a solar cycle of 60 moonphases. Year, lifetime, what difference?
    • In Rocannon's World, Rokanan has years twice the length of an earth year (or, rather, the standard year used by the League of Worlds). Some regions use two twelve-month (or however many they have) cycles to make up a full year.
  • Arranged Marriage: The narrator of "A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" says that ki'O marriages (which involve four people) take a lot of careful arranging. We don't see a Matchmaker at work, but when one couple falls in love, they start looking for another couple to round out their marriage— so marriages do involve "convenience," for lack of a better word.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The parallels between Ashshe from The Word for World is Forest and South Vietnam are hard to miss.
  • Double Consciousness: In City of Illusions, two minds who have lived sequentially in the same body (after one was erased and the other grew in its place, then the first one was restored) end up in joint control. Since their enemies have told a different story to each of them, they are able to see through the lies by working together.
  • Epigraph: The Telling begins with a line from The Mahabharata.
  • Everyone Is Bi: The standard assumption on the planet O, where the traditional marriage structure involves acquiring both a husband and a wife. It's also standard on Gethen— heck, Gethenians think it's odd to prefer being one sex over the other.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: "Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea" introduces the traditional culture of Planet O where marriage is not between two people but four, two men and two women — a man and woman of the Morning moiety and a man and woman of the Evening one. Every partner in the marriage has a husband and wife from the opposite moiety, but their relationship with the spouse of their same moiety is strictly platonic (Sex within the moiety is forbidden). The protagonist's mother, a Terran woman of Japanese descent, married in this way to be with the man she loves but finds it strange many years into the marriage, even though she is on good terms with her wife in the marriage. Le Guin plays with the trope idea though — usually an Exotic Extended Marriage is background for how "alien" the culture is. The planet O is remarkably conservative and predictable, and their four-person marriages are actually the most unusual thing about them, compared to other planets.
  • Fantastic Slurs: In "The Word for World Is Forest", the human slur for the Athsheans is "creechies".
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: While faster-than-light communication is possible with the Subspace Ansible, faster-than-light travel is fatal to humans, so all travel between stars is done with NAFAL ("nearly-as-fast-as-light") ships. The principle on which these work is not described in detail — presumably traveling "nearly" as fast as light would still require some Applied Phlebotinum. The time dilation resulting from the speeds NAFAL ships achieve serves to underscore just how distanced the traveler becomes from their home — while to them the trip might have taken mere hours, anywhere from decades to centuries would have passed on their home planet, all their friends would have aged and died, and so on. And you need to get outside the system before activating the drive, unless you want the sun to explode. However, in three later short stories, Le Guin describes the development of practical faster-than-light ships, based on the principles of the Ansible. She focuses on the impact their appearance has on society and individual lives.
  • Gaia's Lament: Earth is described as having been reduced to a less-than-stellar state of existence. Although The Telling doesn't take place on Earth, the main character is a Terran, and through her we learn that in her time, Earth was both an ecological and social mess. The Word for World is Forest has humans stripping the peaceful forested planet Athshe of its valuable wood, having mined the Earth into barrenness.
  • Genius Loci: Vaster than Empires and More Slow. One planet, one forest, one mind.
  • Going Native: In "Solitude", Ren, the daughter of a Hainish anthropologist doing fieldwork on the planet Eleven-Soro, goes spectacularly native after living for years in Sorovian society, such as it is. She chooses to remain there when her mother and brother return to Hain, even though the slow pace of interstellar travel means that means she'll never see them again.
  • Hate Sink: Captain Don Davidson in The Word for World is Forest being a nationalistic, genocidal Absolute Xenophobe. LeGuin called him the only character she ever created that she considered to be truly evil.
  • The Hermit: Bizarre as it sounds, Eleven-Soro is a society of hermits. "Solitude" explains about loose villages of women who never enter one another's houses or speak to each other, and men who live almost completely isolated once they come of age. Their myths tell of the dangers of marriages, families, and cities, and they consider connections of love and obligation to be malicious magic. Eleven-Soro is Le Guin's experiment with a post-apocalyptic society where everyone turned inward rather than try to rebuild what had been.
  • Hobbits:
    • The Fiia of Rocannon's World are a small child-like race that just wants to enjoy a simple communal life free of care and fear.
    • The Athsheans of The Word for World is Forest are also something like this (they are described as looking rather like Ewoks, only green). They're a peaceful bunch until humans turn up.
  • Hollywood Autism: The unpleasant Osden in "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" is identified as "the only cured case of Render's Syndrome" (a Shout-Out to Roger Zelazny's He Who Shapes), which is supposed to be a form of autism. This leads to the exchange "Cured?" "Yes, he is certainly not autistic."
  • The Horde: In Planet Of Exile, the planet of Werel is inhabited both by a relatively civilized agrarian society, and a bunch of nomadic tribes. At the end of each fall (the year on Werel is sixty times as long as on Earth), the farmers gather in walled Cities to wait out the long winter, while the nomads head for the warmer south through their land. Normally, they are too weak to do anything besides kill and rob some stragglers who are yet to pack up and head for safety, but this time, a chief had arisen uniting them all, and creating a host powerful enough to besiege and loot the Cities.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The Word for World is Forest features humans descending upon the forested planet of Athshe, harvesting the valuable lumber and terrorizing and enslaving the native inhabitants.
  • Human Subspecies: All the humanoid races are from planets colonized by the Hainish. Including Earth humans. Despite a common ancestry, they don't all look like us. For example, the Cetians are hairier, the Athsheans are green (fairy green, not Martian green) and diminutive, and the Gethenians are completely genderless except for a period each month when they develop male and female sexual organs to mate.
  • Intelligent Forest: Vaster Than Empires and More Slow features a group of astronauts coming upon a planet devoid of animal life but covered by a global forest, from which intense fear can be felt emanating. The astronauts eventually realize that the forest itself functions like a tremendously vast mind, and the fear they felt was the world-forest's apprehension at encountering other thinking beings for the first time after a long, long life in isolation.
  • King Bob the Nth: "Winter's King" features King Argaven XVII of Karhide, latest of a dynasty that has lasted 700 years or so. Every king of the dynasty has been either King Argaven or King Emran.
  • Lady Land:
    • "The Matter of Seggri" takes place on a planet where, due to unexplained genetic circumstances, there are sixteen adult women for every adult man. The result is a society in which women run everything, and men are made to live isolated from wider society in "castles". They're seen primarily as sources of sex and entertainment, and mentally unfit for education or participation in society.
    • "Solitude" features a planet after a huge population crash. There is very little civilization at all, but the women live in semi-villages called "auntrings" and the men live as scattered hermits.
  • Language of Truth: Telepathy works this way. The only exception is an alien race named Shing (the aliens in City of Illusions). Apparently, they used that ability to overthrow The Federation and take over... until a thousand or so years later, they were defeated by a race which was capable of detecting their lies.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" takes its title from Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress".
  • Loads and Loads of Races: Rokanan from Rocannon's World. As a result of some ancient genetic experiments it has five distinct species of Humanoid Aliens (some of which are also split into subraces, with rampant Fantastic Racism) and lots of species of non-humanoid aliens. Midway through the book the Earthling hero refuses to hunt since he may kill someone who can talk, though locals aren't that picky.
  • Lost Colony: In the Hainish sequence, Earth (and probably Gethen, too) were lost colonies of the oldest known inhabited world, Hain. Both may have started off as rather ethically suspect experiments, although the Hainish are very ethical by the time of the series. It's subtly implied that all the inhabited worlds may be Hainish in origin.
  • Low Culture, High Tech: In Rocannon's World, the protagonist is attacked and captured by barbarians: savage, primitive nomads who wield explosive heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. The dissonance is justified because the nomads are being covertly supplied by The Empire.
  • Matriarchy: The entire planet Seggri in "The Matter of Seggri". There are about sixteen adult women for every adult man, and the women treat men (who are made to live apart from larger society) variously as intellectually lacking sex objects or "treasures" to be coddled and patronized. Men are seen as more emotional than women and unable to use logic and rational thinking, whereas women are seen as pragmatic and rational.
  • Marry for Love: It would appear that on Gethen (where people's sex drives are very different from those on Earth, and marriage is rarer) and on O (a world with a simple political structure, and no cities) people marry for love and stability, rather than political gain. See Arranged Marriage above.
  • Meat-Sack Robot: The Shing use mentally deficient people as computer controlled drones.
  • Monochromatic Eyes:
    • In City of Illusions, Falk has yellow irises that fill the whole visible part of his eyes, indicating that he comes from another planet.
    • In "A Man of the People", Havzhiva, a Hainishman, is practically the only person on Yeowe whose eyes aren't monochromatic.
  • Neologism: The word "ansible" was coined in this series, and has since been appropriated by a great deal of science fiction for any device which allows faster-than-light communication. (Supposedly it was a corruption of the term "answerable".)
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Characters from one planet frequently live on other planets, sometimes for years at a time. May be justified given that all of the people involved evolved from a common race, the Hainish, and so may have sufficiently similar biology to be able to eat one another's foods without complication.
    • Averted in Planet of Exile, where the Terran settlers on Werel are immune to local diseases, and require drugs to be able to metabolise local food. Although the ending reveals that after many Earth centuries on the planet, the settlers are adapting to fit the local biochemistry.
  • Numbered Homeworld:
    • The setting of Rocannon's World was known as Fomalhaut II before being renamed Rokanan.
    • Eleven-Soro, which features in "Solitude".
  • One-Gender Race: "The Matter of Seggri" deals with a planet where males are a rarity, with something like 12 females for every one male. The story is specifically about the anthropological ramifications of having a species like that, and how it affects the planet. It is written like a study.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted by the two planets called Werel. The shared name appears to be a simple coincidence.
  • Panspermia: All the humanoid races are from planets colonized by the Hainish. Including Earth humans.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The planet Chiffewar is repeatedly described as "lucky" or "peaceful", implying it had seen remarkably few wars (and presumably other atrocities) over the course of its history. Minor cases are the Hainish, who don't really do that anymore due to having a societal-wide case of Seen It All, and the Gethenians, who have been known to engage in clan feuds, but the concept of warring nations is a novelty to them.
  • Planetary Romance: Rocannon's World.
  • Precursors: The Hain are precursors who created humanoid life forms on many worlds (including Earth), but they are still around and still a dominant species in interstellar society.
  • Psychic Powers: Telepathy was a part of Ekumen society in The Left Hand of Darkness, the idea was dropped in the Hainish books written later because it decided as too implausible.
  • Single-Biome Planet: While the title of The Word For World Is Forest would lead one to expect Athshe to be a Forest Planet, it's mostly an Ocean Planet. The only land is an comparatively small archipelago covered in forest. While the native name "Athshe" means "Forest", its colonial name "New Tahiti" reflects its nature as an Ocean Planet dotted with a few islands.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: On Gethen, people who stay in kemmer longer than others (thus retaining one gender) are treated as oddities. On Planet O where bisexuality is the norm, gay and straight people are equally strange, and "Mountain Ways" has a straight man, a straight woman, a lesbian, and a bi woman have to work out a marriage where 3/4ths of them are The Beard.
  • Split-Personality Merge: This happens to the main character at the end of City of Illusions.
  • Standard Time Units: The Ekumen has a nominal standard year for recordkeeping, but due to the difficulty of interstellar travel most worlds use idiosyncratic calendars based on the local year.
  • Terra Deforming: "The Word For World Is Forest".
  • Time Dilation: "Semley's Necklace." This story (later incorporated into the novel Rocannon's World) features Semley going on a quest to recover the lost heirloom of the title, and meeting a group of dwarf-like creatures who promise to help her get it back. What she doesn't realise is that they've taken it to another planet, eight light-years away, and thanks to relativity, what seems like a short trip to her is actually 16 years.
  • Wetware Body: City of Illusions features a society which considers this a proper use for mentally inferior people.

Alternative Title(s): Planet Of Exile, City Of Illusions, The Word For World Is Forest, The Telling, Four Ways To Forgiveness