Poetry & ProsePoliticsPosts by Medium:War, Violence & Terrorism

On The Eye of the Heron

[Just mov­ing some of my longer book reviews here from else­where. This one was ori­gin­ally pos­ted on 2 jun 2014.]

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Eye of the Heron is an enga­ging novella about oppres­sion and res­ist­ance in a new world. The planet Vic­toria has been min­im­ally settled by out­casts from Earth. A group of crim­in­als, now dwell­ers of the new plan­et’s only city, were the first to arrive. Two gen­er­a­tions later, two thou­sand farm­ers were exiled from Earth, and they became the second group of set­tlers, who live in the vil­lage of Shantih, a few miles from the city.

Over the course of the story, the city-dwell­ers attempt to estab­lish a stronger form of domin­ion over the farm­ers, in order to have them func­tion as exploit­able labour­ers, and to cur­tail the sense of inde­pend­ence that the farm­ers have.

The farm­ers in turn try to adhere to a strict code of non-viol­ence and non-viol­ent res­ist­ance. They want to estab­lish a new colony away from the city and Shantih, where they live.

This attempt at greater inde­pend­ence does not sit well with the gov­ern­ment of the city, and they try to impose their order and dom­in­ance. The farm­ers, in the mean time, have to put their prin­ciples into prac­tice, and they res­ist the demands of the gov­ern­ment, led by the cha­ris­matic Lev.

Most of the novella is taken up by this escal­at­ing con­flict, in which major roles are played by the afore­men­tioned Lev, and by Luz, the daugh­ter of the city’s ruler, who even­tu­ally chooses to live with the villagers.

The con­vic­tions of both groups of people are put to the test, and the con­flict cul­min­ates in a stan­doff where Lev and six­teen oth­ers are killed by city mili­tia. On the other side, enraged by Lev’s death, the vil­la­gers retali­ate and numer­ous city sol­diers are killed as well.

In the after­math of this battle, new treat­ies are nego­ti­ated between the city and the vil­lage, bring­ing slight improve­ments to the way vil­lage labour­ers are treated, while still deny­ing them the basic of self-determ­in­a­tion asser­ted by people like Lev and Luz.

The novella ends with a small group of vil­la­gers, includ­ing Luz, set­ting out for a new colony, against the demands of the city.

Le Guin’s depic­tion of the con­flict is very inter­est­ing. While she has great sym­pathy for the rights and plights of the vil­la­gers, she does illus­trate the dif­fi­culties of a rad­ical non-viol­ent res­ist­ance. Such an approach demands great sac­ri­fice, and the will­ing­ness of indi­vidu­als in a com­munity to make those sac­ri­fices for their peers. Ulti­mately, des­pite a strong asser­tion of spir­itual power, it does not neces­sar­ily lead to an improve­ment of the lot of the people, and may even bring about a total sub­jug­a­tion or destruc­tion. On the other hand, pois­on­ing and bur­den­ing one’s own com­munity with paid back viol­ence may be a worse option, depend­ing on your spir­itual convictions.

The story’s end­ing, a brave group set­ting out in pur­suit of their asser­ted free­dom from oppres­sion, is strong, but it also seems very spe­cific to the set­ting of the story. Only the pristine nat­ural envir­on­ment of the planet gives room to such an exodus. They can be reas­on­ably sure that the city-dwell­ers will not pur­sue them, because the lat­ter have far from mastered the land­scape themselves.

Such a scen­ario is hard to ima­gine on Earth today, for example, where the reach of cap­it­al­ist and imper­i­al­ist exploit­a­tion is long indeed. That said, Le Guin does acknow­ledge that in the sparse descrip­tions she gives of the situ­ation on Earth that led to the col­on­isa­tion of Vic­toria in the first place. The crim­in­als were sent off because they were undesir­ables — in itself in inter­est­ing sci-fi par­al­lel to e.g. the Eng­lish estab­lish­ing a penal colony in Aus­tralia. The farm­ers, too, were undesir­ables, con­sist­ing of two thou­sand people from a world­wide ‘peace march’, a non-viol­ent move­ment span­ning all con­tin­ents that was sup­posed to lead to a reset­tle­ment in the wil­der­ness of ‘Canamer­ica’. The gov­ern­ment of that coun­try deceived them, though, send­ing two thou­sand away to Vic­toria, and deny­ing the rest their right of free settlement.

In the end, then, per­haps the novella is try­ing to say that non-viol­ent res­ist­ance to oppres­sion is hon­our­able and mor­ally right. How­ever, you need a Vic­toria, an unspoilt wil­der­ness, to be to truly free. Other human groups are sel­dom enlightened enough to tol­er­ate the free­dom you assert.