Series: Hainish Cycle #3
Published: 1967 by Ace
Genres: Science Fiction
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City of Illusions is the story of an alien who awakens on earth with amnesia. He doesn’t know who he is or why he’s there, but a group of earthlings take him in, and he takes the name Falk. From these people, Falk learns Earth’s history. It was a technologically advanced society, but then the Shing invaded. The Shing are kind of like parasites; they rule the world, but they don’t build anything or do anything for the benefit of society. The Shing eradicate human settlements if they try to do anything big or cooperative, and so humans are forced to live in primitive groups, trying their hardest not to be noticed. Falk’s new friends acknowledge that it shouldn’t have to be that way.
As much as Falk has found a home among the humans, he realizes that he doesn’t belong there. There had to have been a reason why he ended up on Earth, and he decides to go on a quest to try to get his memory back. That quest will lead him on a journey across the planet culminating in a confrontation with the Shing.
As with most Ursula K. LeGuin novels, City of Illusions isn’t about action, it’s about society. Everything Falk encounters in his travels translates to very real commentary about LeGuin’s own setting. For example, Falk quickly realizes that his alien appearance means that people will treat him differently and with open hostility rather than with respect, even though he’s pretty much the same as everybody else. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary on race, especially when you consider that the book was written in the late 1960s. Or the fact that the Shing seem to parallel what can happen when an authoritarian government gets out of control to the point where it suppresses progress and begins to crumble from within–an eerie prediction when one thinks of the Soviet Union’s ultimate demise. One of the things I love most about science fiction is that it allows writers to explore ideas and themes that they see in their own lives in a different world, which changes readers’ perspective on them by removing the “that’s just the way life is” factor, and City of Illusions is an excellent example.
I’ve read a few books in the Hainish Cycle, both older and more contemporary, and I’ve been impressed with all of them. If you stumble across a copy of City of Illusions, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s a short but thoughtful read.