Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

LeGuin creates very human, reachable characters. And her writing is somehow…soft. I don’t mean wimpy-soft; I mean that it carries you along easily on a soft cushion of plot and description. You don’t have to struggle to follow the story. And you certainly don’t have to struggle to figure out what messages she’s trying to send.

Because her novels always do have messages. Most of the time they involve the idea of The Other – how society and/or individuals understand and accept or fear and reject someone who is different from themselves.

I generally appreciate these messages. Sometimes, though, they are just a little too loud. It can be hard to have fun reading when you’re too consciously aware that you’re receiving a MESSAGE.

All of the above, both the good and the bad, were generally true with this book.

There are several minor themes in this novel (the nature of patriotism; the importance of uncertainty) but the main messages are about gender and our assumptions about gender roles. It wasn’t the first piece of science fiction to deal with androgyny but it remains one of the most sensitive and was certainly groundbreaking for its time.

The main character, Genly Ai (a man), is an ambassador for the Ekumen, a peaceful association of 80-plus planets (including Earth) allied for the mutually beneficial exchange of information and trade. Ai is posted to the remote world of Winter (or “Gethen,” to the natives) to try to convince its residents to join the Ekumen.

Gethen is in the middle of an ice age, so it is covered with snow and ice and is always freezing cold.

The Gethenians are all androgynous except for a few days each month when they go into “kemmer.” During kemmer, either male or female hormones temporarily become dominant and the person’s body changes slightly to take the form of that gender. This is the only time the person can mate with somebody else (as long as that other person is also in kemmer and has taken the opposite gender role). Then they revert a few days later back to their normal neutral status. Any person can be male or female in any particular cycle; everybody has the potential to be a mother in one cycle and then a father the next.

This sets up a perfect framework in which to explore issues of difference and acceptance. As an Ekumen scout, sent to the planet undercover long ago, wrote in her report, any ambassador to Gethen “must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

The Gethenians are freaked out by Ai, who they see as a pervert, a person in a permanent state of kemmer. The genderlessness (or, rather, dual gendered-ness) of the Gethenians is also a challenge to Ai. He is uncomfortable thinking of his associates as both men and women – he is always trying to pigeonhole them as one or the other.

Plugging ahead with his job, though, Ai first appeals to the king of Karhide, a poor but basically happy land. The king is threatened by the idea of the Ekumen and exiles Ai and Ai’s main local ally, Prime Minister Estraven. Ai and Estraven then go to a rival country, Orgoreyn, which is richer and more technically advanced than Karhide, but which has work camps and secret police and an atmosphere of fear. Eventually they are exiled from Orgoreyn as well.

The two of them then have to go through a life-threatening mid-winter cross-country trek during which they, naturally, bond and attain a deep understanding of each other despite their differences. A major breakthrough for Ai comes when Estraven goes into kemmer as a female during their ordeal. “And then I saw again,” Ai says, “and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left was, at least, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality…I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, to a woman who was a man.”

In general, I liked the themes and the characters. I also liked the descriptions of the icy scenery and the incredible cold of Gethen:
“Under certain conditions our exhalations freezing instantly made a tiny cracking noise, like distant firecrackers, and a shower of crystals: each breath a snowstorm.”
Ai and Estraven traveled over a glacier “covered with great lumps and chunks of ice,” “slick blue ice hidden by a white glaze,” “broken pressure ridges taking queer shapes, overturned towers, legless giants, catapults.”
It’s just that, as I said, sometimes it felt like the main messages were kind of bald. It’s hard to define where the line is but I know it felt like too much when at one point Ai drew the yin/yang symbol for Estraven, explaining that it represented him - “Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Male, female. It is yourself...Both and one.” I get it already.

I thought that LeGuin’s Dispossessed was a slightly better exploration of the process of growing to understand people who are different from you. Or, anyway, I felt like the main character was a little stronger and that the message was a little more subtle and well integrated with the story.

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