My first review... yay! I've decided to talk about Ursula le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.
Firstly, let me begin by saying that I've not read much SciFi before, and it's never a genre that particularly appealed. As a teenager, I read and very much enjoyed le Guin's Earthsea fantasy novels, and still hold them amongst the best of the post-Tolkien era, but I have never read any of her other works.
My interest was piqued initially when Tom Shippey, a Tolkien critic whom I much admire, listed it as (along with LotR) one of the novels that future academics will look back upon as being the most important and characteristic of the 20th century. On the back of this indirect recommendation, I discovered that Harold Bloom had included tLHoD in his Western Canon - another interesting reason to look at it. Finally, I was told that one of the main themes of the story is gender - which just so happens to be my defining interest in terms of literary criticism. Thus primed, I bought a copy off Amazon.“This story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed, I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.”
The novel is set in the distant future, in a universe whose intelligent population are all human-like to a greater or lesser degree (it is at one point implied that all share a common ancestor and are the result of an intelligent breeding programme). Almost all of the human worlds are connected in a vast economic and intellectual alliance called the Ekumen (not dissimilar to the EU in terms of how it functions). The Ekumen's scouts discover a human-bearing planet named Winter, and as is standard practice a single human is sent to the new world alone as Envoy to make first contact.
This is the background to the story, which opens with Genly Ai, the Envoy, having been on Winter (known as Gethen to its own inhabitants) for two years and currently the guest of the monarchy of the nation of Karhide, where he is treated with a mixture of respect and disbelief. Winter is a deeply inhospitable place in the grip of a ferocious Ice Age, but that which simultaneously most fascinates and most confuses Genly is the unique physiognomy of the people: they are exactly like all other humans, except that gender is a matter of personal choice, and a state that is only entered into for a few days a month, whilst at all other times they are perfectly androgynous.
On an abstract level, tLHoD is an exploration of how a human-like society would develop in a harsh environment without the concept of gender identity. le Guin explores the idea that mankind's all encompassing obsession with duality is a result of our dual nature, and thus something that is absent in the natives of Winter: for example, though they have skirmishes and conflicts, they have no concept of 'war' as such - they cannot support the duality. Their approach to familial connection, and particularly the concept of descent, is also extremely different from our own, and reflected in the complicated and sophisticated politics of Winter. Perhaps most impressive is le Guin's construction of 'Shifgrethor', a complex system of personal honour that Genly has to struggle with in his dealings with a people who are both similar and alien.“The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? ....there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected/ protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards 'him' a corresponding role dependant on your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. It is an appalling experience for a Terran.”
The story is for the most part told from a first person perspective from the point of view of Genly, or from the secondary protagonist Estraven, Prime Minister of Karhide (usually in the manner of a journal in Estraven's case). Other chapters are presented as folktales and legends of the various nations of Winter, and preliminary reports from the Ekumen's scouts - all of which provide multiple perspectives on the rich and detailed world that has been constructed. I cannot go into details for fear of ruining the excellent plot, but a great deal of the weight of the story rests on the relationship between Genly and Estraven, and which we can see from both perspectives. Each is physically, mentally, linguistically and sexually alien to the other, and the exploration of the gulf of subtext that lies between them is subtle, evocative and profoundly moving. With depth and subtle sophistication le Guin demonstrates, through their relationship, the complex and confused interweaving of respect, honour, trust, friendship, love and sexual attraction.“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession... Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
One of the great strengths of the novel is le Guin's evocative and convincing prose style. Her description of the harsh, alien winterscapes are rich in detail, and presented with brightness and lucidity. But more compelling, for me, is the manner in which her language makes her characterisation absolute - the distinct (and massively differing) personalities of the actors in her novel are perfectly captured in their manner of speech and thought. A great many pages cry out for quotation, though I have resisted the urge to post them up here for fear of spoiling the best bits - they deserve their context, and their slow revelation."It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength. We end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give."
To conclude, I really can recommend The Left Hand of Darkness. As most of you will know, my contextual knowledge of 20th century literature is hardly encyclopaedic, but it seems to me that tLHoD represents a major and important milestone in development of the representation of sex in literature. It manages, though, to be much more than simply an interesting idea about gender dressed up into a novel - le Guin's world is a complete one, fully formed and completely understood by the author. Every element of it hints at something much greater lying beyond, a vast planet populated by figures who are both profoundly alien and achingly human. Estraven, in particular, is one of the most compelling, intriguing and inscrutable characters I have come across in a long time - my memory of him will stay with me for a long while. All in all, I heartily suggest you read this superb novel!