In Victoria on a former prison colony, two exiled groups–the farmers of Shantih and the City dwellers–live in apparent harmony. All is not as it seems, however. While the peace-loving farmers labor endlessly to provide food for the City, the City Bosses rule the Shantih with an iron fist. When a group of farmers decide to from a new settlement further away, the Bosses retaliate by threatening to crush the “rebellion.”
Luz understands what it means to have no choices. Her father is a Boss and he has ruled over her life with the same iron fist. Luz wonders what it might be like to make her own choices. To be free to choose her own destiny.
When the crisis over the new settlement reaches a flash point, Luz will have her chance.
The Eye of the Heron has similar themes of rebellion and ecological concern as Ursula Le Guin’s earlier novel The Word for World is Forest, while being less focused on colonialism and having a stronger interest in ideas of different kinds of resistance and power.
This book is very clearly influenced by, among other things, the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights movement, in part by its explicit reference to both Martin Luther King Jr and Mohandas Gandhi. The interest of The Eye of the Heron is in how nonviolence might become a totalising ideology, and what that would do to a community that then had to resist a violent oppressor; in fact, Le Guin turns nonviolence into a religion, with King and Gandhi as the central messianic figures. The Shantih community is fascinating in how it interprets “violence”; much of what Gandhi and King did is counted by the community as violent, and hence unacceptable as methods of resistance – conflict of any kind become taboo, and the community functions largely based on consensus.
On the other side of the conflict, Le Guin’s City dwellers live in a very basic Big Man society model; The Eye of the Heron takes a group of criminals, puts them on a shuttle, and imagines what kind of society they would create when they have to carve out a planet. Le Guin is rather cynical on this front; a combination of anarchic society ruled by the strongest combined with households with, at least in the upper classes, very much nineteenth century norms. The role of women, especially, is very constricted, letting Le Guin use Luz to discuss forms of power that women can have in a society that values them only for their sexual or reproductive potential.
This is especially interesting when Le Guin introduces Luz to Vera, a woman from the Shantih, and to Lev, the de facto leader of the resistance against the oppression by the City. The colliding systems of ideology and morality between City and Shantih don’t have a simple answer of better or worse, as The Eye of the Heron sees an excessive passivity in the face of injustice as culpable in that injustice in the same way that active perpetuation of the oppression is. It’s an interesting model of morality and Le Guin makes a fascinating discussion out of it across the course of the novel, without ever really giving an answer as to what she thinks is the right course of action.
If this makes it sound like The Eye of the Heron is as much political argument as novel, that’s because it is; it’s a pacifist, feminist piece of writing that has strong, solid convictions, the kind Le Guin is famous for having and showing. But it is still also a good novel; Le Guin writes excellent characters, and the cast of The Eye of the Heron are no exceptions. Luz is fantastic as the central character of the novel, as a changing and shifting character whose understanding of herself, society and the world around her shifts and changes; the way Le Guin shows Luz maturing over the course of the novel is absolutely stunning. The rest of the cast change less across the course of the story, but they still change, and they are all interesting and dynamic characters, with lives and independent ideas of their own, rather than just being adjuncts to the central story.
In the end, then, The Eye of the Heron is a readable, well-written, and interesting political tract by Le Guin, concerned with ecology and the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It doesn’t stand out among her other work, but then, that’s setting a high vault to hurdle.