Friday, March 6, 2009

The Left Hand of Darkness Shows Us the Sights

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


Anonymous said...

Le Guin, ah le Guin, how I love her. What I do NOT love, Loren, are your eloquent reviews suggesting books that I feel I /must/ add to my TBR pile!!!

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks! This is actually my first Le Guin, not counting a novella I read in an anthology. If you like speculative fiction, it's worth reading just for literacy's sake. (She is, I believe, the only author to have won both the Hugo and the Nebula twice, starting with Darkness.) I have to say, though, that it engaged my intellect more than my emotions.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Try some of the shorts from "The Compass Rose" or some of her love stories--she is capable of moving the heart as much as the head. (And, occasionally, the sense of humor.)

She just rarely does it all at the same time.

Loren Eaton said...

CR, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my tiny local library has both The Left Hand and The Compass Rose. Yay! No waiting for it to clear the loan list! I'll probably pick it up in a week or so.

Ana S. said...

I love Le Guin, but it took me two attempts to read this book. Then it took me about a week to decide how I felt about it. It's a difficult novel, but I think its strong points are very, very strong.

(Orson Scott Card also won the Hugo and the Nebula twice, for Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.)

Loren Eaton said...

I didn't know that about Card, although if anyone deserves to it's probably him. Yet another author I need to read more of!

The Left Hand is challenging, but the depth of Le Guin's invention is amazing. The cosmology, the geography, the political systems -- I was impressed.