Science fiction is sort of like a kid let loose on a playground. It can sprint along the fence’s sweep all the out to the edges just to see where it will end. It can scramble all over the jungle gym until it knows every inch of its construction. Or it can plop down in the middle of the sandbox, take up a shovel, and start building whatever comes to mind. Which is exactly what Ursula K. Le Guin does in The Left Hand of Darkness, only her materials are significantly less mundane. She constructs a world all her own by packing together stars and solar systems, cultures and kingdoms, mysticism and science, sexualities and semantics.
Genly Ai, ambassador of a star-spanning confederation called the Ekumen, can’t seem to convince the inhabitants of the planet Gethen about the sincerity of his mission. His problem lies not only in persuading them that a heretofore unknown galactic government wants them to join its ranks, but also in demonstrating that he’s actually an alien. It shouldn’t have proved difficult, especially since he’s a he in a world of hermaphrodites whose male or female characteristics emerge only during a monthly mating period. But the feuding nations of Karhide (a monarchy) and Orgoreyn (a socialistic bureaucracy) each believe that Genly is a hoax perpetuated by the other. Soon he finds himself on the run through the hinterlands of a planet so continually cold that its discoverers dubbed it Winter, his only ally a traitor with a price on his head.
I know that stories require decision making, conscious choice in emphasizing character and plot, place and theme. Le Guin gives the latter two an admirable workout, especially the setting. One rarely finds a paragraph that fails to detail some part of Gethen’s geography or climate or mythology or politics. Also, the anthropological impulse runs strongly through the novel. Le Guin likes to get caught up in pondering, say, the interplay between sexuality and violence (her androgynous creations have never known war) or biology and religion (just as the planet’s inhabitants combine masculine and feminine, so its philosophies seek a cosmic unity). Fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, The Left Hand’s action and, to a lesser degree, personalities remain underdeveloped. Sometimes Genly acts essentially like an erudite tour guide. Still, the detail of Le Guin’s imaginings boggles the mind, and when you reach the back cover, you have little trouble comprehending why the book won the Hugo and Nebula awards, two of science fiction’s top honors.
(Picture: CC 2007 by lincolnblues)