Wednesday, February 11, 2009

09.05 The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pbk, Ace, 304 p.

For no real apparent reason I have always been resistant to reading this book. Perhaps it was a subconscious misogyny or just disliking being told what books are the "essential" sf novels. Either way, I finally took it upon myself to see what all the fuss was about especially since, like me, this story turns 40 this year.

This science fiction story takes place on a planet called Gethen which is also known as Winter. The planet is so cold as to be almost at the limits of humanoid survival. There are 2 large nation states, Karhide and Orgoreyn as well as a number of smaller ones on the planet. The inhabitants of the planet live a near feudal existence with Kings, councils and peons however, there is still tech in things like outdoor gear and vehicles. The primary difference in the Gethians concerns their sexuality as compared to 'normal' humans. For most of the month they live as functional androgynes expressing no sexuality. Then for a couple of days they enter kemmer, a highly sexualized period where they can become either male of female depending upon who their partner is. Both can sire and bear children.

For the most part the novel is written from the perspective of an alien, Genly Ai. He has been sent to the planet as an Envoy from the Ekumen, a sort of benign federation of planets. They generally send a single representative to new planets to try and convince them to join. A single Envoy poses little threat but also has extensive diplomatic and language skills. In spite of this, the task Genly Ai has been set is a difficult one as the Gethians are somewhat unconvinced of the necessity of joining the Ekumen.

The story was very well written. I would liken her writing a little to Iain M Banks in the skill at creating a believable alien world and it's personal and political intrigues. Telling it from the perspective of an outsider who gets to travel all over the planet is a cool way to describe without describing. Obviously, sexual politics play a role in the book but she never pushes them too hard or makes you feel that the Gethians are different just to make them alien. Their sexuality is integral to the development of the race and their place on Winter.

I'm glad I finally took the time to read this book and would recommend it for any fan of science fiction.


Buzby said...

Great review. I read this plus the lathe of something rather and found them both to be excellent.

Olman Feelyus said...

What is the main conflict in the story? Or is it more of an exploration?

Lantzvillager said...

I wanted to stay away from revealing too much of the plot. There is actually a lot of conflict in that Genly Ai must convince the Gethians to join the Ekumen. There is a lot of political intrigue with him being exiled and imprisoned for falling in with the wrong factions. The final big part of the book is an incredible journey he makes with another exile across hundreds of miles of the winter wasteland.

Doc said...

Yes, this is a really solid book. The gender-bending premise is slightly dated now, but one can appreciate it still, and if you consider it's publication date it was a daring as well as an awesome piece of writing.