Novella Review: “Forgiveness Day” by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Cover by Wojtek Siudmak. Asimov’s, November 1994.)

Who Goes There?

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the decorated and universally beloved authors in all of genre fiction, and indeed is one of the few authors I know whose impact can be felt in both science fiction and fantasy almost equally. She started late, already in her thirties when she sold her first SFF story, but by the time she turned forty she had become one of the major voices in the field, and the ’70s only cemented her dominance. With novels like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Dispossessed all published only a few years apart it’s not hard to see how Le Guin earned her stripes. It was also during this period that she established the two series that would occupy much of her output for the rest of her life: the Earthsea series and the Hainish series. For my money it’s the latter series that makes Le Guin one of the greats for me, with every Hainish story I’ve read being at the very least interesting, and often being very much food for thought. Unfortunately, Le Guin would abandon Hain and the many worlds of that series for about a decade and a half to persue other avenues.

But then she came back! The ’90s saw a major resurgance for the Hainish series, with Le Guin also starting to contribute regularly to genre magazines while she was at it. Today’s story, “Forgiveness Day,” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction but later was collected in the book Four Ways to Forgiveness—not a novel but a collection of stories linked by setting and themes. Among the many worlds of the Hainish series the stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness all have to do with the sister planets Werel and Yeowe, and a massive slave rebellion on one that impacts the other. The second, third, and fourth of these stories were first published in Asimov’s, with “Forgiveness Day” being the first.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the November 1994 of Asimov’s, which is on the Archive. Like I said it’s part of Four Ways to Forgiveness, or Five Ways to Forgiveness if you’re reading the Library of America edition, as that includes the later story “Old Music and the Slave Women.” The collection is not hard to find, regardless of the version, but “Forgiveness Day” has also been anthologized elsewhere, namely The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twelfth Annual Collection and The Best of the Best Volume 2, both edited by Gardner Dozois; the latter collects some of the best novellas to have been included in Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction series up to that point. There’s also The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, which includes most of the stories in Five Ways to Forgiveness plus several novellas and novelettes from throughout her career.

Enhancing Image

Within the first page we’re told a good deal about our first protagonist (I say that because there’s a second one we’ll get to in a bit), Solly, who is young but has been “around,” as it were. With hundreds of lightyears under her belt and having been on a dozen planets, Solly is perfectly qualified to act as Envoy despite her age. Her latest assignment as an agent of the Ekumen (basically the Hainish equivalent of Star Trek’s Federation) is to venture to the kingdom of Gatay, on the planet Werel, to observe and partake in one of that kingdoms holidays—indeed the titular holiday, the Day of Forgiveness. With Solly are two men, a guide and a bodyguard: the former is not so important but the latter will become our second protagonist, so let’s go through each of them in an orderly fashion, yeah?

First there’s San, the guide, who is somewhat smarmy but still useful, acting as Mr. Exposition for both Solly and the audience, letting us in on some cultural nuances of Gatay, “showing [Solly] with a bare hint what was expected or what would be a gaffe.” And we’ll need that guidance too, because Gatay, being part of Werel, is not at all what we’d call progressive or a libertarian paradise; there are rules to be followed. The first thing Solly learns is that being a woman in Gatay sucks some major dick: your capacity to speak with others is limited and you’re not allowed to partake in male activities—which, in Gatay, is most things. There are exeptions, of course. For one, it’s okay to talk with another woman if the rules of society deem her to not be a “woman” in the full sense of the word, because as it turns out, slaves aren’t really to be considered people here.

Right, so slavery is in vogue on Werel, as it was on Yeowe before the slaves revolted en masse on that planet. “On Werel, members of the dominant caste are called owners; members of the serving class are called assets. Only owners are referred to as men and women; assets are called bondsmen, bondswomen.” So you have people who are, depite being fully-fledged adults, someone else’s property. Some of the conflict that arises throughout the story is Solly’s reluctance to respect other people’s cultures, and indeed her crassness may be her chief character flaw, but in her defense slavery is not a cultural practice worth respecting. (It occurred to me early on that Le Guin probably modeled the slave culture of Werel on the Antebellum South, what with its lack of democracy and its highly decadent upper crust.) As such Solly’s interactions with other characters depends on if they’re “assets” or “owners,” or agents of the Ekumen like herself.

(Another aside: The natives of Werel and Yeowe are noted to be dark-skinned, and I’m sure Le Guin got a small kick, thought she would never say so, out of the irony of creating a culture of dark-skinned slave-owners.)

Speaking of which, we have Teyeo, the bodyguard. Teyeo seems to be a shadowy figure at first, but soon we’ll find he’s about as important and certainly no less heroic than Solly, despite a dark past which continues to haunt him. Teyeo is one of those people who seems mentally predisposed to always be a soldier or involved in military affairs to some extent; in that way he’s rather old-fashioned himself. The third-person all-seeing narrator gives us a rundown of Teyeo’s character, or at least how he is at the outset, with this (and more) to say:

“His reality was the old reality of the veot class, whose men held themselves apart from all men not soldiers and in brotherhood with all soldiers, whether owners, assets, or enemies. As for women, Teyeo considered his rights over them absolute, binding him absolutely to responsible chivalry to women of his own class and protective, merciful treatment of bondswomen. He believed all foreigners to be basically hostile, untrustworthy heathens.”

Mind you that Le Guin basically turns back the clock to give us a recap of events partway into the story, but from Teyeo’s perspective. It’s here that we find out that Teyeo took part in the fight against the slave uprising on Yeowe, which he did less out of wanting to make sure assets were denied their freedom and more as a government man; even so, having one of your heroes (and he is supposed to be heroic) aim his gun against slaves is a bit of a tough pill to swallow. As is made clear, though, these are different cultures which value different things. For example, cross-dressing is perfectly fine on Werel (hmmm), both for actors since, like in the days of Shakespeare, male actors would also play female roles, and for women like Solly who want to sneak into male-oriented gatherings. Indeed Batikam, who is rather famous locally and who catches Solly’s attention, is one of these so-called “transvestite” actors, though he’s not as important to the plot as he would seem at first. In one of the more implausible moments in the story, Bakiman, a stage actor, is shown to not be strictly homosexual, as Solly makes no secret of being horny for him and so they get it on at one point.

(Bakiman, on top of being a crossdresser, both on- and off-stage, is also technically an asset: he and his fellow actors are owned by a company rather than an individual person, which does give them a bit more leeway. Le Guin also has some fun with the reversal of pairing Solly, a woman who dresses like a man so she can see Bakiman perform, with a man who dresses like a woman, seemingly because he likes the aesthetics of women’s clothing. It should come as no surprise that “Forgiveness Day” was up for the James Tiptree, Jr. Otherwise Award, which funnily enough Le Guin won that year for a different story.)

Le Guin is an impressive writer because she wears a multitude of hats, depending on what you’re reading: she could be wearing her anthropology hat, her feminism hat, her humanism hat, her anarchism hat, her Taoism hat, among a few others. “Forgiveness Day” sees Le Guin in full anthropology mode with a dash of feminism; it’s clear that we’re supposed to connect the systemic and inflexible misogyny of Werel with that planet’s normalization of slavery—that the two seek to control what people can and cannot do, to turn people essentially into product, hence “asset” as a euphemism. A gripe I have with this sort of worldbuilding is that for some reason Le Guin thinks it’s fine for whole planets to represent cultures, as opposed to real life where you’ll be in for a rude awakening if you travel from California to Texas (or even from Austin to Houston) expecting the exact same values and customs. If you can get past that, it’s pretty interesting.

There Be Spoilers Here

There both is and is not a lot to say about “Forgiveness Day.” You may notice that I’ve delved into the characters and backstory a fair bit but less so the plot, and that’s because while the backstory is multi-faceted and at times ambiguous, the plot itself is straightforward. I think it’s straightforward. You could theretocially cut out flashbacks and worldbuilding to make this a novelette rather than a novella, but a) it’d be rendered incomprehensible, and b) it’d be way less engrossing. The backstory is the story, you see. The situation Solly and Teyeo end up in is the result of their personal flaws combined with the systemic problems of their environment, as opposed to a Rube Goldberg machine of plot beats.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

A woman is sent with a guide and a bodyguard to a kingdom where the woman is play what should be a simple part in a ceremony for one of the kingdom’s big religious holidays. The woman has to contend with this society’s backwards customs regarding the treatment of women, along with slavery being part of everyday life, but ultimately she keeps going with the mission she is to accomplish. One night the woman and her bodyguard are kidnapped by people who at first seem to either want to kill her or hold her for ransom, but they’re shown to be well-intentioned—if incompetent. As it turns out the woman was spared an assassination attempt at the ceremony by some religious fanatics. Eventually, after sitting things out and doing some rather intimate bonding, the woman and her bodyguard are rescued with a non-violent solution and they all live happily ever after.

Correct me if I’m wrong about that, I’ll be sure to edit this part and act like I didn’t make that mistake to begin with. Point being, the back end of the novella is concerned with Solly and Teyeo being stuck in a room together and talking for the most part. There’s a good deal of paranoia, including the possibility that the Ekumen conspired to have Solly killed and blame it on those who support the slave revolt on Yeowe. Loyalties are not always clear, “slaves and masters caught in the same trap of radical distrust and self-protection,” with the paranoia being implicitly a byproduct of a culture that treats a fraction of its people as property. The disease of slavery permeates all social interactions and the happy ending for Solly and Teyeo implies both Werel and Yeowe being rid of this practice.

The story’s explicit anti-slavery stance and far less explicit anti-capitalist stance makes me wonder how neo-Confederates (i.e., slavery apologists) reacted to it and the book it became a part of at the time. This is an older and more mature Le Guin (I’m not sure if the Le Guin who wrote The Word for World Is Forest would’ve made Teyeo so sympathetic), but still this is Le Guin with a clear purpose. Contemporary reviewers seemed to laud “Forgiveness Day” and Four Ways to Forgiveness as Le Guin’s strongest science-fictional statement in quite a few years, and I have to agree that even this lone novella lacks the low energy and frivolous writing that one would expect from an author was then in the fourth decade of her career.

A Step Farther Out

I don’t entirely understand this one, but that has less to do with Le Guin’s writing, which is often lucid if also given to chunky expository paragraphs, and more to do with the density of the worldbuilding. While it is functionally a standalone narrative, “Forgiveness Day” alludes to a much larger conflict that can’t be summed up in a single novella, so it’s no wonder that we’re given a few other stories to explore the setting further. Le Guin always had an anthropologist’s mentality with storytelling, but it seems like that side of her only became more prominent as she aged, with the Hainish story “Mountain Ways” (review here) also being ultimately more concerned with the background of the characters than the characters themselves; unlike that story, though, “Forgiveness Day” has an actual ending, and a pretty good one to boot. Five months after publication we got another novella centered round Werel and Yeowe in Asimov’s, with “A Man of the People.” Given how these stories were published close together and how they relate to each other, that certainly gives me an idea for a future review…

See you next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: