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<City of Illusion by Ursula LeGuinn
Published by St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
City of Illusion is a sort of companion book to Planet of Exile, which deals with a group of humans stranded by war on a world that has humanoid inhabitants. However this becomes clear only near the end.
When the book begins we are only presented with the main character, Falk, who wanders mindless out of the forest and who is marked out from all other humans by his catlike eyes. From the people who take him in he learns of how the terrible Shing, the Masters of the Lie, conquored Earth and shattered the Hainish League. (They may be the same Enemy of Rocannon's World, but this is unclear).
The Shing have forbidden humans to communicate with one another or to build cities, and under their rubric of Respect for Life try to break the natural food chain and make all creatures herbivores. Somehow they have even taught animals to speak, although they are not truly rational creatures. The Shing capital is Es Toch, the City of Illusions of the title, which lies somewhere in the Rockies.
Once Falk has learned enough to have some hope of surviving, he sets out on a voyage to Es Toch and meets many people on the way. Some try to help him and some try to harm him, but in the end he arrives at Es Toch, where the Shing claim that they are just an elite group of humans who are benevolent dictators over the shreds of a humanity that self-destructed in civil war.
Slowly the whole story comes out, of how the people from the world of Planet of Exile came and were mindwiped ("razed") by the Shing, who set them loose to die, since they will not kill. But now the Shing need to know where that world is, and bring Falk back to restore his memories of his old life so that they can extract the information. But he retains his memories of being Falk and of not trusting the Shing, so he tricks them and steals one of their ships, along with one of the Shing scientists, to take back to his homeworld.
Trying to pierce the net of lies and arrive at the truth about just what is going on is the scariest and most fascinating part of the book. If the Shing are the Masters of the Lie, then who can tell friend from foe, or what really did happen to bring ruin on Earth? It maintains the suspense and keeps the reader wondering what is going to happen next. The role of the Lie in it made me think of Orwell's 1984, but for me this was an even more effective portrayal of the way in which deceit confounds trust and the perils of the government attempting to deceive its citizens "for their own good."
City of Illusion has been reprinted as part of an omnibus, Worlds of Exile along with Planet of Exiles and Rocannon's World
Click to buy Worlds of Exile
This review posted May 23, 1999
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