Jul. 8th, 2010

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

His obtuseness is ignorance. His arrogance is ignorance. He is ignorant of us; we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of hope he brings us.

This was my birthday present from Barry and he chose brilliantly (I suppose he ought to have a pretty good idea of my tastes after nearly ten years). The Left Hand of Darkness deserves its designation as a science fiction masterwork: it is is also an unconsummated love story, a profound meditation on gender, a tale of political intrigue and a thrilling piece of polar adventure/survival fiction all rolled into one. The action is set on the distant planet of Winter (Gethen in the parlance of its natives) a world like Earth but with two major differences: the planet is still in the grips on an ice age and its humanoid inhabitants are all of one gender. Gethenians are capable of both mothering and fathering offspring, adopting the necessary sexual characteristics to do this only when they come into heat or "kemmer." The rest of the time they are without distinguishing sexual characteristics or drives. The book tells of the coming of the Earth man, Genly Ai, an envoy for the Ekumen, an organization of more than eighty worlds, who hopes to persuade Gethen to join. The story of his mission and his observations of the alien Gethenians is interspersed with chapters telling tales from the planet's history and mythology.

I think Ai's profound sense of isolation - alienation in it's most literal sense - is shared by the reader in the earliest chapters. Le Guin's world-building is so dense and detailed that the book seems quite hard to follow, but it's absolutely worth persevering: soon, like Ai, I found myself feeling more at ease with the alien words and terms, and by the second half of the novel I was absolutely hooked. Gethenian biology of course allows Le Guin the opportunity to air some profound meditations on gender. It is significant that there is no organised warfare on the planet, the lack of sexual competition removes this militarising urge - although the Gethenians find plenty of less organised ways to kill each other. Le Guin's aliens remind us that we all should be people first, men and women second. It is an important lesson and the reason this book is regarded as a feminist classic. However, what I enjoyed most in The Left Hand of Darkness wasn't its anthropological musings so much as just the sheer gripping excitement of its final section which chronicles a gruelling quest for survival as Ai and his one true Gethenian friend undertake an epic journey across a glacier in the depths of the planet's darkest months. I love polar survival fiction anyway, Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys (about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition) is one of my all time favourite novels. But Le Guin gives the genre a further twist, as all the challenges of the elements and the scarcity of food brings Ai and his companion much closer together, beginning to forge and understanding and trust despite the gaping chasm of their biological, social and cultural differences. It's an incredibly moving account and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
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September 2010

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