82. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, BY URSULA K. LE GUIN (Book 4 of The Hainish Cycle)
Recommended by Mary. The fact that it’s the fourth book to be published in the Hainish Cycle does cause me some mild discomfort, since I didn’t read any of the other ones yet, but according to Ursula herself the books can be read as standalone so I decided to read only this one now and read the others in the future.
Synopsis: Genly Ai, a human ambassador, is sent to the planet Gethen (known in other planets as Winter) to try and facilitate their inclusion in the galactic civilization. Winter is populated with a different species, similar to human but who have no gender.
Overall enjoyment: It is a very good piece of science fiction. The story drags a bit in some places, but the premise is fantastic, the world building is amazing and the whole book gives you a lot to think about.
Plot: The political intrigue was a little bit confusing, but nothing overwhelming; political intrigue tends to be confusing in any setting. The beginning is mostly Genly trying (and failing) to come to terms with the ambisexuality of the people around him, and it takes a while for the story to actually start moving. The only problem I had with plot points was Estraven’s suicide. We are told that suicide is Simply Not Done in Gethenian society; not only extreme, but very shameful. In the context of the story, there just doesn’t seem to be enough motivation for Estraven to do it. He could have tried to run away; maybe he would have been killed anyway, but to just accept it seems very much off-character.
Characters: Genly just can’t wrap his head around the gender thing. He’s not very likable, but very believable. The other characters are interesting in their humanity: they are what people would be if there were no gender.
World/setting: Winter is a world going through an Ice Age. The landscape is barren and frozen, and it plays beautifully with the story and characters. The alien society described is fascinating. She doesn’t bother with too much details; she gives the reader enough to understand what’s going on and skips the rest (which I’m very glad for).
Writing style: The book is in the first person, and I get the sense that she was trying to write the way Genly would. It’s a bit truncated and arrogant, and it took me a while to get into it. There are some short segments with Gethenian legends and some “written” by Estraven that are obviously different from the rest, and make it clear that it’s Genly’s voice we’re reading throughout the book.
Representation: Genly is the only human character (there are a few others towards the end, but they hardly count). He describes himself as dark-skinned.
Political correctness: Having the protagonist and only human character be male was an interesting choice. He is clearly proud of his own virility, and seems personally offended by the lack of gender and everything that comes with it. In his own words: “A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”
He refers to all the Gethenians as “he”, claiming that male would be the standard, and is appalled when they do anything that he considers feminine (which, interestingly enough, is almost always something that he considers negative). He laughs at the very idea of a King being pregnant, and is unsettled when he learns that, although all the King’s children can be heirs to the throne, a child “from the King’s body” would take precedence. The idea that any person in Gethen could get pregnant after the “kemmer” (a phase in the lunar cycle when Gethenians express sexual characteristics and “mate”; they cannot control nor have any tendency towards what gender they’ll express) seems utterly terrifying for him. This prejudice and abject fear he expresses when faced with Gethenian society influences other characters’ reactions to him, and is one of the factors that move the story. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened had Genly been a different gender.
Up next: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner