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Left Hand of Darkness

Well, this certainly is a great book, isn't it? I first read it, says my memory, sometime in my teens, although I'm not sure if it was before or during college. The only thing that I really remembered about it -- if it was truly memory and not just years of reading other people's comments on the book -- was the concept of kemmer and the epic journey across the ice.

Le Guin is a writer I've had a mixed reaction to over the years, and I think it's because I don't share her fascination with utopias, ambiguous or otherwise. This is not, by any means, a utopian book. As science fiction, at its deepest level it's a first contact novel. It's about the first encounter of alien races, and one of the things Le Guin does very powerfully in it is explore how Self and Other are bound together in a relationship that is both schismogenetic and reciprocal. In kemmer she captures the intricacies of this relationship in a biological system.

The humans of the planet Gethen normally don't have a biological gender or sex. Once of month they go into kemmer, which is something like estrus, and they take on a sex, either male or female. If there is another person in kemmer in the vicinity, they will take on the other sex in schismogenetic response. Le Guin uses this alien biological system to examine human sexuality and gender relationships, and while her approach to these matters has been criticized by feminists as pretty conservative, she still produces some startling moments of cognitive estrangement in which the traditional view is called into question. What particularly struck me was the way she uses the Gethenian (or is it only Karhidian?) acceptance of incest to produce a final slingshot that carries us deep into the alien Otherness. I had just read the entry on Le Guin in the online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in which Clute argues with his own one-time lament about Le Guin's "fatal lack of risk." Hard to see how that judgment ever applied to the end of this novel!

The novel exhibits all of Le Guin's preoccupations and influences, from Taoism (Genly Ai even draws a yin-yang symbol for Estraven) to totalitarianism and political prisoners. The chapter in which Genly Ai is transported to a prison camp and interrogated is Le Guin at her tough-minded, humanitarian best. The contrast of political systems between the Karhidian monarchy and Orgotan police state (and to a lesser extent the Hainish system, whatever it is) is beautifully nuanced and subtly discerning. These are two oppressive systems with different strengths and weaknesses. I might say that it's because neither of these systems is utopian or admirable or sympathetic that Le Guin is able to draw such an interesting dependent, if antagonistic, relationship between them. The tension between them creates an intimacy.

From the very first chapters of The Left Hand of Darkness I found myself comparing it to H.G. Wells. It seems to me that Le Guin's achievement, both science fictional and novelistic, is on that level here. She was hitting on all cylinders in this one, and the story-engine still roars over forty years later.

There's no doubt it has been a hugely influential book as well. One thing that inspired me to re-read it was Jo Walton's post at tor.com, "Some Thoughts on Anthropological Science Fiction as a Sub-Genre", where she traces Le Guin's influence on books such as Michael Bishop's Transfigurations, Nicola Griffith's Ammonite, and Eleanor Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People. It's because of Walton's article -- following, as it did, a long rap by voidampersand at Westercon about Mary Gentle's books -- that I'll be reading Gentle's Golden Witchbreed next. Maybe it's time to finally try Amy Thomson's The Color of Distance too.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2012 08:50 pm (UTC)
I was only thinking about LeGuin today (more accurately, wishing that a Complete Le Guin was available as an ebook at any price). I first read Left Hand of Darkness as a young teen, after it was recommended by a poet at a reading who I idolised and who had - I suspect - clocked the odd, butch, little twelve year old who actually gave a shit about poetry as somebody who might get some personal use out of it.
I *hated* it. I can't remember why. I suspect I thought I was being lectured to, or that something in it didn't quite make sense and so I dismissed it all in the way you do when you're at teenager. I love it now, of course. Read it, and the couple of short stories set on the same world, every couple of years. Second only to The Dispossessed as my favourite book by my favourite author.

I think I had a point, but it's got away from me. Ah well.
Oct. 11th, 2012 10:25 pm (UTC)
Le Guin does adopt a didactic or teaching tone at times, although I didn't particularly notice it in this book. I really don't remember what I thought of it as a teenager, although over time I told myself I liked it better than The Dispossesssed, which is a book that didn't bowl me over either time I read it in younger days.

I remember liking "Coming of Age in Karhide". Have there been other short stories set on Gethen? I was trying to figure out if "Coming of Age in Karhide" had been collected in anything, but haven't gotten far in my research.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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