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No Sex Please We're Aliens!
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
Member Name: Mauri
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
Date: 30/07/07, updated on 08/06/09 (187 review reads)
Advantages: Well written, imaginative story
Disadvantages: Fairly unknown
'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.
© Mauri 2007
Summary: A story of First Contact on the harsh Ice world of Gethen inhabited by a sexless society