Saturday 12 March 2011

Book Review: Ursula K Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Having previously read Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet (review here) and enjoyed them I was keen to try this science fiction novel by the same author.

The book is set in the far distant future on a planet called Winter, which as its name suggests is always cold. The people of Gethren, although human in appearance, have the distinct quality of being androgynous apart from the few days each month where they take on the qualities of either male or female and are able to procreate. This quality means that there has never been a war on the planet as the people are not both aggressive and organised enough (i.e. male enough) to wage war.

Genly Ai is a representative of the Ekumen, an alliance of over eighty planets across a number of galaxies. He is sent to Winter to convince its people of the existence of other planets and to invite them to join the Ekuman to share its knowledge and civilisation. There he finds he has become a pawn to the various political factions who are trying to use his existence, or deny it, in order to manipulate the populace. Despite the support of the Prime Minister of one Winter country (Karhide), he soon finds himself in danger and fleeing to another, Orgoreyn, where again he tries to convince the government to join the Ekumen.

This is not your usual sci-fi full of planets, light sabres, strange looking aliens and fantastical worlds. This is a sedate book, with people much like us in many ways and with traditions and customs which are recognisable. Almost more like a different country than a different planet. Sometimes this means that the book could feel a little meandering and slow in pace. In particular Genly’s many month journey over an ice glacier starts to get monotonous – after all how many different ways can you describe snow?

However, the book does provide a fascinating insight into the people and culture of Winter. In the Earthsea Quartet Le Guin managed to create a believable alternative world and in Winter she does so again although the world is completely different and unique again. The people’s physiology, traditions, history, government, politics, religions, customs, culture, modes of living and civilisation all come to life fully formed and real in their own way. The androgyny of the people of Winter impacts on all aspects of their life and Le Guin is consistent in the way she shows this – whether through people’s behaviour, the structure of Winter society or the way people react to Genly Ai – his one gender means that he appears to be a pervert to the people of Winter. Saying that, much of the time it did not feel as if I was reading a story about androgynes, but about men. This though might say more about my assumptions than about Le Guin’s ability to make the characters’ androgyny real.

Something else which stood out and bothered me throughout the book was the way characters misunderstood one another due to the difference in cultures. Genly learns the languages of Winter, but this turns out not to be enough. People he trusts try to kill him, and he is unable to understand the warnings coming from people trying to help him, who in turn cannot see why he will not take the hint. The book shows how what we value in one culture, means something so different in another. Genly is often self-effacing calling himself humble and lacking in knowledge. These things are prized in Winter civilisation – lacking in knowledge almost meaning a person is more spiritually aware, making Genly appear arrogant to people when he does not mean to be.

This book is a fascinating attempt at creating a complete culture, at once both recognisable through its similarities to us and alien, due to the lack of gender differentiation. Le Guin’s novel has been described as an attempt at feminist science fiction and when you see the difference not having two genders makes, you can see why. The fact that Genly is black and therefore darker than many Winter inhabitants, is not problematic in the way his being male is.

An interesting, thought-provoking, occasionally slow, but ultimately rewarding read.

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