The Shing are a fictional alien race, in the Hainish Cycle of novels and short stories of the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. They are only explicitly described in City of Illusions, but seem to be the same as the distant but threatening 'enemy' mentioned in Rocannon's World and Planet of Exile. In The Left Hand of Darkness, brief reference is made to an earlier 'Age of the Enemy' which is now past. It seems the planets of the former League of Worlds have re-united as the Ekumen.
In her introduction to the 1978 hardback edition of City of Illusions, Le Guin regrets the improbable and flawed depiction of the villains, the Shing, as not convincingly evil.
Nature of the Shing
Originating in a distant region of the galaxy, perhaps hundreds of light-years from Earth, the Shing infiltrate and destroy the League of All Worlds twelve hundred years before City of Illusions begins. The League has received prior warning of alien conquerors subduing distant worlds and for generations have worked to prepare defensive alliances and weaponry. However when the Shing finally arrive they are able to speedily subdue the eighty League planets, apparently without encountering effective opposition. The main weapon enabling this rapid and confused occupation is the Shing's ability to lie in Mindspeech. The Shing closely resemble humans though they seem to be unable to interbreed with them. Coming to Earth as "exiles or pirates or empire builders from some distant star" the Shing, who are not numerous, establish themselves in a single fantastical city Es Toch. Under their rule the remainder of Earth declines into a thinly populated collection of backward and often mutually hostile tribal societies.
Mindspeech is an advanced form of telepathy practiced by the Shing. Mindspeech was first learned by Rocannon, an ethnologist from the planet New South Georgia of the League of All Worlds on the world called in his honor Rokanan. Two of the races on Rokanan have indigenous telepathy and from one of them Rocannon learns the skill himself, and later it spreads throughout the League. One axiom held to be undeniable was that it is not possible to lie through mindspeech, however the alien Enemy of the League, the Shing are able to mind-lie and use that ability to infiltrate and destroy the League.
"Reverence for Life"
Ruling through "toolmen" - human collaborators who are either computer controlled or who have been raised to accept the Shing as benign human lords, the only truth that the Shing seem to accept is the law of preservation of life. They appear as pathological liars, though Falk, the Alterran leading character of City of Illusions, comes to conclude that "the essence of their lying was a profound, irremediable lack of understanding" of the peoples that they have conquered. Shing character, culture, architecture and even clothing are ambiguous and illusory.
The Shing also appear to keep vegan lifestyle. Their "elaborately disguised foods were all vegetable" and their one law of Reverence for Life is often expressed by the animals it is meant to protect. Throughout the plot of City of Illusions, the main character encounters speaking beasts, birds and rodents who mechanically tell him that he must not take life. Falk, however, believes this Law is nothing more than an extreme fear of death.
At the ending of City of Illusions Falk escapes from the Shing in a stolen interstellar ship, returning to his own home world of Werel where the interbreeding of Terran colonists and Hainish-descended indigenous peoples has built an advanced society with the will and capacity to end Shing rule over Earth. Also, the Werelians possess the ability to detect Shing mindlies, meaning they aren't as easy to subvert as the old League.
The final fate of the Shing is not made clear. The philosophy of the Ekumen provides for coexistence with objectionable peoples, but it is less apparent what the Alterrans believe. Nor is it certain how or when the Ekumen was established - just that it occurred at some point between the time periods covered by City of Illusions and The Left Hand of Darkness.
- Le Guin, Ursula K. City of Illusions Introduction, (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1978), page vii.