Jan 4, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Image from wikipedia

I've been catching up on science fiction and fantasy classics I somehow missed along the years and recently finished Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. I was looking forward to the book, because I've read a lot of Le Guin's fantasy novels and loved them (the Earthsea series is one of my all-time favourites), but for some reason I had a hard time with this one.

(Oh, and there will be spoilers, so read on at your own risk.)

Don't get me wrong: this is a great novel. The world-building is inspired, the characters well crafted, and the prose beautiful.  I think the problem for me was the very slow pace at the start. The book explores the efforts of Genly Ai, a Terran man and emissary, to convince the people of Gethen to join the Ekumen, a kind of coalition of planets. The other POV character, Estraven, is a Gethenian who gets exiled for helping Genly. The first half of the novel felt like being a tourist on Gethen (Winter), and I kept reading for the world-building, but the book didn't really grab me until the part where Genly gets captured and locked up in a labor camp, Estraven saves him, and they cross the glacier to safety. The political stuff and the folk-tale type interludes just didn't interest me enough, I guess.

Reading as a writer, this was worth it for the world-building alone. I loved details like how the people on Gethen have little ice picks at the dinner table to break the ice that forms on the water glasses between drinks, and how the houses are built with snow in mind with doors up high. I also have to mention the ansible, the device Genly uses to communicate instantaneous with the other planets in the Ekumen. This is of course a familiar technology in many science fiction books, but Le Guin invented it. The untranslatable concept of shiftgrethor (it has to do with saving face and giving advice and Gethenian social interaction) was interesting, too. The neologisms were quite plentiful, and they made the book heavy going at times, but I've read enough fantasy that it they didn't bother me that much.

 If you know anything about the book, you probably know that it explores sexuality and its effect on society. The people of winter are in a neuter phase most of the time, and only become male or female while in kemmer, when some of them are triggered to become male and some female (and the same individual can become male at one time and female at another), but mostly sexual differences don't play a role in society or affect decision-making. I found the concept interesting, and the speculation on how something like this would affect the society was fascinating. For example, Gethen hadn't had any major wars. Coincidence?

Le Guin is also very good at getting into her characters' heads. As this is something I struggle with at times, especially in third person POV, the book was a good way to study how a pro does it.

The prose is also worth studying. It's effortless, with unique metaphors and a great flow to it. Never overwhelming the narrative, it's the kind of writing that makes you forget you're reading a story and leaves you free to live it.

Absolutely a novel worth reading.

So, what do you think?  In my opinion, the best books make the reader think, but let her to enjoy the story, too. That's a tough balancing act. Have you read The Left Hand of Darkness? Did you find it entertaining, or more of an intellectual exercise?

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