Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness was recommended by my son who is currently working on a Ph.D. in Japanese literature. Although I rarely read science fiction, I took up his challenge and read this winner of multiple prizes, in which Le Guin asks readers to consider how culture and personal relations might be different if people were androgynous, sexually active for only a few days per month, and capable of both siring and bearing children.

Genly Ai is a native of earth serving as an envoy to the planet Gethen for the interplanetary coalition known as the Ekumen. Following a team of scouts who landed on the planet (known in the Ekumen as Winter due to its frigid climate) incognito, Ai is trying to convince the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen. He begins his work in the nation Karhide, where shifgrethor (the quality of face or pride) underlies all social authority. He has been working with the Prime Minister, Estraven, who is soon banished from the kingdom by the monarch Argaven. The book traces the journeys of Ai and Estraven to the neighboring (and unfriendly) nation of Orgoreyn, with a markedly different structure of government and culture (bearing some resemblance to a socialist or communist state--the book was written in 1969), and back to Karhide. Orgoreyn's politics are equally treacherous, however, and Ai finds himself in serious difficulties, which only Estraven can help him understand and escape. As they travel the treacherous ice fields of Gethen, Ai explores the developing understanding between the androgynous Gethen and the male native of Earth.

While Ai's voice is dominant, the book also includes chapters from Estraven's perspective, as well as "ethnographic reports" from the scouts who studied Gethen before Ai's arrival. These reports do add to the reader's understanding of the cultures of Gethen. On the other hand, the chapters from Estraven's perspective, while providing insight not available elsewhere, undercut the conceit that the book is a report from Ai to the Ekumen.

On the positive side, Le Guin creates two complex Gethenian cultures and does cause readers to reflect on the role of gender and sexual desire/gamesmanship on culture and on personal relationships--worthwhile reflections. On the other hand, I found the section describing the journey across the ice to be too long and tedious. The book itself is a reasonable length, but I could have done with less of this trek.

For me, reading a novel set in a totally imagined world was challenging--I found myself spending so much time/energy trying to figure out the geography, the power relations, the language, etc., that I was not focusing on the ideas LeGuin was dealing with. While I tried to "let go" and read for the big picture rather than the small one, I was only partially successful. The book begins with a very interesting (and much cited, according to the aforementioned son) introduction in which Le Guin discusses her view of science fiction, stressing that it is descriptive rather than predictive, that the future in science fiction is a metaphor. Since I have never thought much about science fiction (other than to think it would never be my favorite genre), I feel challenged to test my understanding of her ideas by reading some other scifi.

Favorite passages:
I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. (Okay, it's a bit aphoristic, but I still like it.)

Light is the left hand of darkness . . . how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.

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