It’s Hodderscape Review Project time again. A bit of a kerfuffle with shipping left us with Ursula K LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
I’m actually afraid to begin.
100 words: overall
Oh, god, how can I possibly? This is one of the weighty classics of the genre by one of its living masters. I know. I’ll read it very slowly, pay attention, put off the ending and the requirement to write some, any review.
Whoops. There went 100 pages. So fast. There’s not a lot happening – an Envoy from a galactic space group opening dialogue ahead of treaty negotiations with a world of endless winter and no gender. I have time, and keep reading more.
This delay will prove fruitless. I’m going to have to start now and finish somewhere. Ahem.
100 words: World building: Gender style
LeGuin wanted to use her Hain universe to explore the context of a sexless society: one in which gender didn’t matter. This is pointed out – in a sometimes heavyhanded way – the musings of Ai as he navigates the complex political landscape. There’s a deep, clever thought experiment going on here: not only the effect of a society of hermaphrodites – every month people become either male or female – but how they see someone locked into maleness as an outsider coming in, their matter-of-fact-ness in monthly sexual ritulas. The effect on society where anyone can be either or both mother or father.
100 words: World-building: local politics
The Left Hand of Darkness is heavily concerned with Gethenian local politics. This is a world in which sex is removed from the political equation by putting those in kemmer (ready for sex) into public kemmer-houses for a few days each month. Gethen lies at the frigid edge of the habitable zone: life is a constant battle against winter, without room for war. Political machinations resonate with shifgrethor, a complex code of personal honour under which negotiation and power is intensely personal and indirect, avoiding conflict. There are two main countries, one a soviet-style collective, the other a feudal monarchy.
100 words: World-building: interstellar politics
Genly Ai is the Envoy from the Ekumen, a loose collection of the worlds of humanity, built from the shreds of a shadowy galactic empire sometime in the past. There are rules about interference, but the rules seem easily bent or broken according to individual needs or the local situation. Ai insists that the Ekumen only wants this world of endless winter to join them if they so desire, but behind these protestations lies an assumption that the Ekumen-empire is a Good Thing; if Ai fails, another will come, and another. The planet will join up, one way or another.
100 words: What it means to be human
There are two basic stories out there: either “Someone goes on a journey”, or “A stranger comes to town”. This book has both. Genly Ai is a stranger, a genetically disparate alien arriving on a planet, who has to explore the world of Gethen to find out what it means to be human, to be, and have, a friend.
The politics and gender investigation are interesting, sometimes troubling, but we read this book and keep reading it, because of the story, how the cold, dispassionate Ai and Estraven become friends, struggle against incredible odds, and discover their very own humanity.