Four Ways To Forgiveness (1995)
by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)
This is an ordered set of four long stories, with setting and some characters in common, as well as theme. In the beginning, this is a story of slavery between two races of humans, originating in differences of skin color. After a few hundred years, this basis has been lost as owners breed with assets. By the time of the rebellion, the basis of slavery is a matter of mentality and conditioning. After the rebellion, the same inequities persist as tribal institutions take up the power in society. By the last story, it is clear that the nature of freedom is the primary theme, and the true objects of Le Guin’s sympathy are revealed plainly. The story of this last struggle for freedom is the main point of the book. As she usually does, the whole is very well carried off.
As with many writers of “science fiction”, the back story is quite interesting. In LeGuin’s case, this background is more perfectly plausible than any other I know of. All the protagonists are of a single species; they are human. Over a period of at least a million years, humans have spread over a region of the Galaxy, entirely at ordinary speeds. The star ships are referred to as “NAFAL” ships: Nearly (or Not?) As Fast As Light. When a person migrates from one star system to another via a NAFAL ship, the leave-taking is important, since it is permanent. By the time the voyage is finished, those left behind are generally dead or quite old.
The main action in these stories takes place between two planets of a single system. The only influence from outside the system is through the representatives of the Ekumen, and these Envoys necessarily have great autonomy. Nonetheless, they have a track record of spreading peace and civilization. I find the back story more congenial, perhaps because it is more challenging, than any other.