Monday, December 3, 2007

Review - The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursala K. Le Guin
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1969 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I'm not an Ursala K. Le Guin fan. Other works of hers that I've read have been preachy at best, so I fully expected going into The Left Hand of Darkness that I'd hate it. Once more I was pleasantly surprised. It speaks to the quality of the book that it overcame my prejudices and I found it to be pretty good.

Genly Ai is a diplomat sent from an interstellar society that has faster than light communication but not travel. They bind worlds together through an exchange of culture and ideas despite the rarity of travel between them. Genly is attempting to get the lost human colony of Gethen to join their society but the feudal country of Karhide is hesitant to open trade with such a broad community. After his once ally Estraven is banished from Karhide Genly abandons his attempts to get the kingdom to join and travels to the hostile neighboring country of Orgoreyn, a Marxist dictatorship, to try to convince them to open trade. After falling out of favor there Genly is imprisoned and escapes with Estraven's help. Together they try to escape from Orgoreyn by crossing the polar ice cap.

Like the previous Hugo winner time has not been kind to The Left Hand of Darkness. It's central premise, the one that reportedly shocked and impressed readers when it came out was that the humans on Gethen change gender regularly when they're fertile. In our post-sexual revolution culture the book has lost pretty much all of its impact. "Oh look, they change gender from time to time. Not that there's anything wrong with that..." (Are they hermaphrodites if they only have one gender at a time?) The major use of this is an attack on traditional gender roles but in the past forty years they have been completely transformed. I'm not shocked by the idea of someone half-female being in a position of power, or even put off by the concept a person who can both sire a child and give birth to one.

Unlike Stand on Zanzibar, though, The Left Hand of Darkness manages to convey an interesting story. The politics of Gethen are fairly complex and feel real. There's many factions who each want to use Genly for their own ends and the conflicts between them drive the book. The feudal classes of Karhide are socially repressive but in their own way are more open than society of Orgoreyn. Orgoreyn on the other hand claims to have removed classes but still has them lurking underneath. Genly's journey there reminds me a lot of the people in the sixties and seventies who traveled to the Soviet Union to see the bright face that they put on over the ugly totalitarianism. The parallels between Orgoreyn and the USSR are fairly blatant but I didn't find them so blunt that it became annoying. The fact that Karhide is not really a direct stand-in for any western nation probably helped the book avoid that trap.

Another very effective aspect of the book is the interweaving of Gethen legends into the story. These interludes help fill in some of the holes in Gethen society that just wouldn't naturally fit into a story about a diplomatic envoy.

I also appreciated that idea that even when things can't go faster than light there is still a great deal of value in a cultural exchange. Rather than holding the position that someone who is essentially at a level of technology of the early twentieth century doesn't hold value to a space faring race Le Guin notes that there's a lot to be gained just by talking to each other.

The themes of The Left Hand of Darkness may not carry the weight that they once did but because the book wasn't dependent upon the impact that those themes have on the readers it is still worth reading. The richly drawn characters drive the book forward and the prose is superb. It is a great example of early political science fiction where the conspiracies and ideas are more important than the action.