Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness has been on my to-read list for a very long time. It's recognized as one of Ursula K. Le Guin's best novels and a hallmark of science fiction literature having won countless awards. With her passing a few months ago, I realized it was past time I get to this book and finally found the time to read it. Here's the official blurb:
On the planet Winter, there is no gender. The Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle, and this is something that humans find incomprehensible. 
The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent an ethnologist to study the Gethenians on their forbidding, ice-bound world. At first he finds his subjects difficult and off-putting, with their elaborate social systems and alien minds. But in the course of a long journey across the ice, he reaches an understanding with one of the Gethenians — it might even be a kind of love
See below for my spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression
I can see why this is a well-regarded book. Its strengths, like many classic science fiction novels, is in the setting, in the way alien ideas are presented in a way that reflects modern life today. The duality of men and women and concepts of gender have been at the forefront of news stories of the past few years making this story an appropriate and thought-provoking read. While the plot meanders a bit and the cast of characters is small, they nonetheless serve to reinforce the story's unique setting.

This is the type of book that you read without knowing what's going to happen. There isn't a clear directive other than the main character, the Envoy, is trying to get Gethen to join the Ekumen with the understanding that such a feat may be beyond his own lifetime. The events are mostly concerning his personal life and travels, interspaced with stories of Gethenian folklore. Towards the end, you get to see how all the seemingly disparate pieces fall together to weave a story of rival nations and alien friendships.

The cast of characters is rather small as it focuses mainly on the experiences as seen from the Envoy- Genly Ai. He has traveled to Gethen/Winter on a mission to bring them into the Ekumen, an alliance of human worlds and colonies. Other major characters include King Argaven of Karhide as well as the party rulers of Orgoreyn. Chief among the nobles is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who is quickly exiled from Karhide. Estraven and Ai paths cross several times throughout the novel allowing us to see the world not just from Ai's point of view.

Setting / World Building
The bulk of the novel is dedicated to exploring the mysterious world of Gethen. In this world, mankind has evolved outside the traditional concepts of gender. Each Gethenian is neither male nor female, but once during their mating cycle will become on or the other, what they call being in kemmer. There is no predilection into which gender they end up in, one Gethenian may be male in one cycle but female in the next, and thus bear children accordingly. With the duality of gender removed from society, the people of Gethen have very different perspectives of life than the Envoy does. Several chapters in fact are interludes describing historical myths and legends that are well known in Gethen and help the reader understand better their society.

In addition to the intricacies of gender and the harsh climate of Gethen, there are also two rival countries with very different political outlooks. Karhide is more of a classic monarchy, with strong centralized authority, while Orgoreyn is a form of representative democracy, which while on paper is more advanced it also has drawbacks in the tight control over information and personal liberties. Which one is superior is an open question left to our interpretation. As for the Ekumen, we don't see much of it in this novel, though it's presence is alluded to in many cases.

Final Thoughts
This was a pretty interesting book. As I now understand it, there are many other novels and stories in Le Guin's Hainish cycle that chronicles humanities future in space. I've read one or two others, but after reading this one I am curious to learn more of about the rest of them. For this novel, the story is focused in bringing in the world of Gethen into the fold of humanity and when viewed in that light, the plot and characters make sense. This is a story of making an alien culture feel more human than our own. I was left wondering if a society like theirs could somehow improve upon the ills of our own world or if it would only make things worse. While I didn't care much for the slow plot and the cast of characters, I was impressed by the philosophical implications of their society and I'm sure it's the sort of thing I will think of for years to come.

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