Monday, May 11, 2020

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I first encountered Ursula K Le Guin as a young kid. I read the Narnia books over and over and when our family doctor found that out, he loaned me A Wizard of Earthsea. I was in no way ready for it and it really freaked me out. But I still remember bits of it thirty some odd years later, so it must have had something. I hope to reread it and maybe the sequels later this year. More recently (2-4 years ago), I read Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, her answer to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I picked up a copy of Left Hand of Darkness, her most acclaimed work, around then and have finally gotten around to reading it. It is an ur-text for feminist themed science fiction and is a classic worthy of its reputation.

It is the only one of her Hainish novels I’ve read so far, but that series of stand alone novels is set in a universe in which there are many worlds, including Earth (or Terra), all inhabited by humans descended from a common set of ancestors. Many of them have joined together in a confederation of planets called the Ekumen. Genli Ai, born on Terra, is a representative of the Ekumen sent to a planet called Gethen by its inhabitants, and Winter by the Ekumen due to perpetual winter. There are several nations there, and the primary action takes place in the largest two, Karhyde and Orgoreyn. The humans on Gethen are biologically androgynous. They have no primary sexual characteristics outside of a brief period each month when they can become either for procreative purposes. Any person can either sire or bear a child.

Like a lot of scifi novels of the 60’s and 70’s, there’s a lot of focus on political intrigue, primarily between Karhyde and Orgoreyn. And a main concern of the novel is examining the effects of true androgyny on the politics of the place. Ai’s main ally in Karhyde, where he spends the first couple years of this time on Gethen, is Estraven, himself an exile. (Even though all humans born on Gethen are androgynous Le Guin uses masculine pronouns for them.) Both Ai and Estraven end up in Orgoreyn. Ai’s goal is to try to get the planet of Gethen into the Ekumen. The book is part scifi, part gender studies, part survivalist thriller, part political thriller, and, once I got on its wavelength (which took a couple tries) absolutely compelling.

It is well structured. The bulk of the book are first person reports/journals kept by Ai and Estraven, sprinkled with folk tales from various places on Gethen. The folk tales give the reader enough knowledge of the customs and politics of the world without excessive infodump, and are interesting as short pieces in their own right. The alternating narratives of the two main characters, one Terran, one Gethen, allow Le Guin to examine the effects of gender on a range of issues without getting didactic. The way the two characters view each other is fascinating. And the intrigue and survivalist framework allows the book to move along without getting bogged down.

I need to ponder the book and likely reread it a couple times before I’m willing to make stronger statements about everything it is saying. But I can give it a full throated recommendation. I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to revisiting it.

Highly Recommended.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 31/75

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