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.
Posted by Jason L