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I'm a huge fan of Ursula Le Guin. I loved the Earthsea trilogy later to become a quartet (now there's a wizard's tale! Eat you heart out Harry Potter!) and having gone to school with her son and met her in person I thought I knew most of her books so I was pleasantly surprised to find that this classic from 1969 had slipped me by. 'The Left Hand Of Darkness' is not a long book but it is exceptionally well written and plotted. It has the feel of a long book, in a good way since it manages to explore and include so many different and imaginative concepts in its 256 pages. Often described as the first example of feminist Science Fiction it explores the role of gender by setting the story on the planet Gethen were sex is determined but is adopted when needed, potential bisexuality is the norm and fixed sexuality is a perversion. Gethen also known as 'Winter' is a forbidding place to live, it is an Ice world were temperatures well below zero are the norm, only part of the planet is habitable the northern and southern extremes being permanently under a thick sheet of ice were no life can flourish. Two major factions Karhide and Orgoreyn populate the planet. Karhide is primarily a feudal kingdom fairly repressed in its technological progress and Orgoreyn on the surface at least is a more progressive place ruled by political alliances and parties. Gethen is unaware that a whole galaxy of inhabited worlds exist beyond their solar system indeed Gethen is technologically backward never having developed flight let alone space travel. However all this is due to change as a federation of worlds populated by other human civilisations known as the Ekumen have decided to make first contact with Gethen in an attempt to get them to join. This contact takes the form of a human envoy Genly Ai who lands his ship in Kharhide and makes contact with the king Argaven and is soon befriended by the first minister Estraven. The envoys first contact don't go totally to plan and before long he finds himself in danger, a pawn in the political struggle between the two rival powers on the planet. 'The Left Hand Of Darkness' does what good science fiction should do; it makes you think sparking your imagination beyond the confines of the world you live in as well as entertaining you. Science fiction has always been a good way of discussing difficult subjects. Political criticism has often been disseminated more widely and more popularly under the guise of science fiction, take Orwell's '1984', Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' or Huxley's 'Brave New World' as examples. Le Guin with this novel set on an alien world with humans radically different from ourselves effectively manages to examine the issue of sexuality and the effect that this could has on our society an issue that was a pressing one in the late 60's with the background of civil rights and the women's liberation movement. By setting the story within a society that has no permanent sexual orientation where humans are not seen an either male or female she is able to examine what difference a lack of sexuality would make to society in general. Would there be conflict and wars? Would the 'male' attributes of honour and pride be so evident? Would the society have dynamism and drive? The cultures seen on the winter world of Gethen are well constructed by Le Guin and I found them to be a plausible and logical in their descriptions. In what is a short novel Le Guin manages to give this society a mythology and history to explain how it got to be where in is in the present. Le Guin creates a complex religion and set of beliefs for her characters and small details of the culture delight and intrigue the reader. For instance the fact that the Gethen calendar work laterally with the present year always being 'Year One' is symbolic the planets obsession with 'being' and existing simply to exist. The idea of progress in our own human terms is foreign to them. This might be due to the terrible struggle that life on Gethen is or it could be a result of the lack of sexual dynamics that exist on the planet. The Gethen religion of Handarra also focuses on stillness, permanence and wholeness again features more general to the Gethen race. The descriptions of the social rituals practices by the 'bisexual' race are fascinating and feed the imagination as to how a society would cope of develop without the dynamic male and female division. To describe the natives of Gethen as bisexual is probably not accurate they are sexless most of the time except when they are in 'kemmer' then they became sexually aroused and can adopt either gender based on chance and hormonal levels, this means they can all potentially give birth and be mothers as well as fathering children throughout their lives. To them being permanently of one sex a rare state to be in I regarded as a sexual perversion and not accepted. What also makes the book stand out are Le Guin's fantastic descriptions of the alien landscape. The section were two characters are chasing across the ice covered northern regions are especially notable for their imagery and quality of writing "Under certain conditions our exhalations freezing instantly made a tiny crackling noise, like distant firecrackers, and a shower of crystals: each breath a snowstorm." The story is told throughout from two differing perspectives rather than being a single third person narrative. We see the events unfolding from the point of view of Genly Ai the male Ekumen envoy but also from the viewpoint of another character who is a native of Gethen and thus sexually ambivalent. This makes the story more intriguing and highlights how such different people might view situations differently. In is interesting to note that while this has been referred to as a feminist book there are no female characters in it, although the inhabitants of Gethen can be considered both men and women. Le Guin is an intelligent writer and she manages even with such an enormous canvas the genre potentially provides to be focused and intimate in the storytelling. The story despite it's background of political power struggle and deceit is ultimately about the friendship and respect that two people have for each other and about the way that circumstances forces them to understand each much more closely than either would have imagined on first meeting. While I'm not totally convinced that such a sexless society would indeed be as described by Le Guin I cannot fail to be impressed by her imagination and the skill she uses in putting forwards her theories, it certainly makes the reader think. 'The Left Hand of Darkness' is a good example of a thinking man's (or woman's) science fiction and proves that Ursula Le Guin is one of the most skilled writers in this much-maligned genre. 'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula Le Guin in paperback (256 pages) Published by Orbit (ISBN-10: 1857230744 / ISBN-13: 978-1857230741) can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £5.28 (+p&p) at the time this review was written. Highly recommended. © Mauri 2007
Genly Ai is the emissary of the Ekumen, a far future, benificent community of humankind that seeks connectivity between the disparate and distanced worlds that humans have populated. Genly is sent to Gethen, also known as Winter, a planet in the grip of an ice-age and beyond the rim of the Ekumen’s known space. Gethen is populated by ambisexuals: human beings who can be either sex, and who experience sex in what is termed the kemmer/somer cycle, whereby they begin to develop the sexual characteristics of a man or a woman, and their partner, in response, develops those of the opposite – this is kemmer, described as a ritual torment and festivity of sex. When not in kemmer, the Gethenians are sexually neutral, and are in somer. The scientists and sociologists of the Ekumen postulate that the Gethenians are a past experiment by the first expansion of Hainish influence (the seed world of the Ekumen) across the galaxy. Genly arrives in Karhide, choosing this monarchy ruled by the Mad King Argaven, as the entry point of his mission to draw Gethen into the Ekumen. Genly finds he is unable to make significant or measurable progress in Karhide and suspects two reasons for this failure: the system of public power play termed shifgrethor, and the influence of the Prime Minister, Estraven, ever the Mad King. Estraven has held Genly back from seeing the king for some time, but eventually organises an audience for him, which does not go at all well. Genly attempts to put the king in communication with the powers-that-be of the Ekumen through a device called an ansible, which allows instantaneous communication across light-years of distance. Enigmatically, Argaven asks of the Ekumen what makes a man a traitor? After the interview Genly realises why the king asked this: he has banished Estraven, his Prime Minister, as a traitor. A visit from Estraven’s onetime kemmering (partner) reveals that Estraven has been stripped of his power and title, branded a tr aitor and banished because of his involvement with and interest in Genly Ai and the Ekumen. Ai and Estraven both then travel to Orgoreyn, for different reasons and by different methods, where they encounter a communist-type state. Estraven, continually trying to guide Ai, only irritates him, and Ai fears an association with Estraven will once again endanger his mission on Gethen, this time with the rulers of Orgoreyn, and so shuns him. Eventually, Ai is imprisoned, and it is Estraven who rescues him. Together they flee onto the Gobrin Ice, a glacier, so that they can escape Orgoreyn, return to Karhide and summon Ai’s companions from the Ekumen. The image of two humans in the vast white waste of a glacier is the central theme of the novel and the essence of its programme, its brilliance, its power. Ursula Le Guin writes unsettling, sophisticated, mature and lyrical science fiction. She is the most literary of sci-fi and fantasy writers (see The Earthsea Quartet), and managed to knock the Golden Age of science fiction out of its spaceships, rayguns and supermen complacency. The Left Hand of Darkness was first released as a pulp paperback, but after winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards in a single year (the first book to do so (I think), but she did it again with The Dispossessed) people began to sit up and read it. Now, also published by Virago as a classic text of women’s writing, and the subject of academic inquiry all over the world, The Left Hand of Darkness is widely recognised as one of a very rare breed indeed: literary science fiction (hoho!). Le Guin uses the elements of the world/universe she has created to explore some very profound subjects: sexuality, gender, war, power, nationalism, paradigm. Is sex the root of aggression? the book asks, or is it the concept of nationhood, and the transgression of the boundaries it establishes, that starts a war? Do people who cannot seduce or rape each other, because it genuinel y takes two to tango, need to fight and make boundaries? If you and I are both of equal strength, if you and I can play both roles of the sexual balance, who holds the power? And how? (hence shifgrethor). The scenes and narrative that precede the flight across the Gobrin Ice also lay the foundation for the change and journey that Ai and Estraven must undergo together, both as bodies fleeing, and as, seemingly, the only two people in the world. The isolation of the ice, its elevation above the rest of the planet, creates a world of neutrality in which Ai and Estraven must come to terms both with what is different about them and what is the same. The novel is told in differing voices, but is orchestrated as a narrative by Genly Ai, as his report to the Ekumen; amongst the voices are Ai, an Ekumen scientist who explains the sexual biology of the Gethenians and theorises as to its intention (because she is adamant that it is an engineered experiment: what a horrific experience, this scientist exclaims, to be stripped of your gender and all its concomitant characteristics, and to be judged purely as a human being), mythological tales about the origins of Gethen and its people, tales about Estraven’s ancestors (so that we can better understand the significance and effect on Estraven of being branded a traitor), and entries in Estraven’s journal. Ai’s narrative and Estraven’s journal act in counterpoint to each other, presenting their initially opposed and gradually corresponding perceptions of each other and each other’s words, actions, emotions and behaviour. The Gethenians, living on a world in the grip of an ice age, strive, in their lives, for presence, just as we strive for progress. Their calendar works laterally, each year being shuffled back or forward by one so that the year you are in is always Year One. There is even a religion, practised by Estraven at one point in his life, that strives for stillness, concentrat ion, presence. Genly, discussing philosophy with Estraven, introduces him to the yin yang symbol in reply to a Handarra (the religion) poem that begins ‘Light is the left hand of darkness…’ to which the novel’s title alludes. The yin yang presides over the novel as surely as the cold pervades Gethen. The Left Hand of Darkness is an extraordinary journey, for all involved, reader included. It is a thinking person’s novel, and a feeling person’s novel. It is science fiction for the literary minded and literature for the sci-fi enthusiast. Yin and yang, light is the left hand of darkness… As Estraven would say, Praise then Darkness and Creation unfinished!
A science fiction novel which tells the story of Winter, an Earth-like planet where the weather conditions are semi-arctic and the inhabitants are all of the same sex, which is invited to join a coalition of planets.