tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
[personal profile] tispity
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.

Date: 2010-07-08 10:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] davidnm.livejournal.com
I read this book during my first few months at Exeter. It's still at the back of my mind now. Le Guin is very good at creating lucid and believeable characters and worlds. Interestingly, I find she's even-handed with her portrayals; some of them could easily have ended up as being take-thats, but you never feel like she's dropping an anvil. She makes her points with subtlety, and they're all the more effective for it.

On a related note, you'd probably also like 'The Telling', I suspect. I didn't expect to like it when I read but I actually really did.

Date: 2010-07-09 02:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tispity.livejournal.com
Ah, I thought this is a novel you'd probably have a few thoughts about too! Yes, I agree that Le Guin's even handedness is greatly to her credit: I think it's particularly noticeable in the way she treats the two very different political systems in the main countries on Gethen, showing the pros and cons of each gradually over time.

I will have to add The Telling to my list of future books to read, thank you.

Date: 2010-07-08 10:20 pm (UTC)
lizzie_borden: Lizzie & Necrophonic (c) by us (Default)
From: [personal profile] lizzie_borden
I love polar survival fiction
Please tell me you've read The Terror by Dan Simmons.. It's BRILLIANT

Date: 2010-07-09 02:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tispity.livejournal.com
Ooh no I haven't read that but having looked it up it sounds absolutely my sort of thing so I will hunt down a copy right away. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

Date: 2010-07-09 06:13 pm (UTC)
lizzie_borden: Lizzie & Necrophonic (c) by us (Default)
From: [personal profile] lizzie_borden
You're very welcome.

I tell you, it held me prisoner til I finished it. It's got 90 million different elements to it- it's fiction based on historical events so it's got a bit of really fantastic and accurate detail to it, it's got indigenous people's mythology thrown in, a healthy does of psychology, starvation, and terror of something lurking out on the ice.. oooh, I tell you, it's bloody fantastic!


--and you can even poke around online and find a few really old photos of the men from the actual historical event.

Date: 2010-07-09 09:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tispity.livejournal.com
Oh cool, I really am excited about getting hold of that one now. I like books that fictionalise real events like that, so that if they really grip me I can carry on learning about the history the novel is based on after I've finished reading it. When I finished The Birthday Boys I went on a massive trip of reading and learning all I can about the Scott expedition. Luckily many of the men involved came from my part of the UK and they actually had a whole exhibition devoted to it in our local museum, with replicas of the - scarily inadequate - clothing and equipment they had. It was fascinating!

Date: 2010-07-09 10:46 pm (UTC)
lizzie_borden: Lizzie & Necrophonic (c) by us (Default)
From: [personal profile] lizzie_borden
http://www.amazon.com/NOVA-Shackletons-Voyage-Of-Endurance/dp/B0007PAMOM
If you haven't seen the NOVA special about the Endurance, you really should. It's riveting.

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