Saturday, January 8, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
ISBN: 0-441-47812-3

Blurb (this week it comes from as there is no blurb on the back cover):

Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender--or both--this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since.


My Thoughts:

First, I have a confession (one that might not surprise you if you’ve been reading the blog for a while): I don’t read a lot of science fiction.  A strange thing, really, considering that I enjoy Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Space Above and Beyond…the list goes on.  Apparently, I like my sci-fi when it’s visual, not when it’s written.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough good sci-fi stories and if you, dear readers, have suggestions (other than Caitlin R. Kiernan’s amazing stuff) I’d be happy to hear them.  All right, now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about The Left Hand of Darkness.

I didn’t go into reading this book completely ignorant – I’d read some feminist critiques of its use of the male pronoun for the ungendered Gethians, but mostly I had heard good things about the novel.  I’m not going to address the pronoun thing.  I think going into that misses the point and ignores the fact that in 2011 a book published in 1969 is already a historical document, so you can see the pronoun use as a sign of the times.  For me, the focus of the novel was not he/she/it but rather the ideas about what it means to be human.

A critical part of sci-fi, or any piece of fiction, is the world building.  In order for the reader to lose themselves in the story, the future or alternate universe (or whatever) of the story needs to be believable and Le Guin does a wonderful job of creating the societies of Winter,  making their cultures and traditions come to life.  Learning how to navigate through this other culture alongside Genly Ai was a successful approach to bringing the reader into the story and the world. 

I think one of the most effective parts of the whole narrative was the trip across the glacier.  In less skilled hands, a long passage of two characters traveling through snowstorms and snow blinds for a good chunk of a book would be boring, but here it was intense and thoughtful.  Since Winter is a planet in an Ice Age, the cold almost became a character, as did the snow and these two forces are brought to their peak as Estraven and Ai make their covert crossing.  (As an aside, I think my ability to use escapist fiction is broken.  It's winter and I seem to be reading novels about cold places instead of warm ones.)

Something else I wanted to at least discuss briefly is that at times I felt like I was reading philosophy rather than fiction, but not in that “this is so dull” way that I sometimes feel about philosophical interjections in novels.  Le Guin presents a nuanced, thoughtful perspective of humanity and how dualities shape societies.  Science fiction doesn’t really evoke philosophical discourse for me, when I think of it, but maybe it should.  There is very little “hard science” in this novel, instead it takes an approach that focuses on people, how they live, how they perceive the universe and their place within it, how that changes when a traveller from another planet arrives.  Maybe that’s where I’m wrong about sci-fi as a literary genre and I should give it a better standing in my reading priorities.  I care more about these topics than about “hard science” which my lit-major brain has trouble comprehending (a short-coming I wish I could remedy, but I fear the science-understanding part of my brain has atrophied).

I feel like I haven't said a lot about the story itself, but that I've managed to give you my impressions of the book, anyway.  It has more than piqued my interest in reading more sci-fi, which is a hearty recommendation on its own.  It's a good book that is focused enough on characters to interest those scared off by hard sci-fi and I think it might prove to be a gateway drug for me!

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