2015 Reading Journey: The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)

Okay, I was supposed to post this last weekend, but…

Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness picked up both the Hugo and the Nebula in 1970. It’s the first award winner on the 2015 Reading Journey and what’s even more odd is that I’ve never read any of Ms. LeGuin’s science fiction before.

I’ve read all of her Earthsea stories, but the only SF of hers I can remember reading is the novella “The Word for World is Forest”. And that’s strange to me at the moment. Since next year’s reading journey starts on my quest to read all of the Hugo, Nebula, Aurora, and World Fantasy novel winners from the inception of each award, I’m going to encounter more of her work and based on past history, I’m likely to enjoy most of it.

But, this is about The Left Hand of Darkness.

Starting at the beginning, I love the introduction where Science Fiction is discussed not as the traditional “if this goes on” but as thought experiments by its author, whoever that author might be. And Ms. LeGuin presents a strange thought experiment in the story that follows: a society of genderless individuals. Okay, not exactly. More a society of individuals who only take on true sexual characteristics for a few days each month. Not everyone fits into that mould, the narrative even states that there are 3-4% who are “perverts” in several fashions, but most do. In general, the humans of Winter (Gethen, in its own language) are only gendered, and only sexually active, for a few days each month. The rest of the time, they are all the same gender, or the same non-gender, depending on how you want to look at it. It’s probably worth noting that they don’t all have those few days at the same time. Society would shut down.

This is a weird story.

It’s a richly imagined world and society, though the author throws you in off the deep end and expects you to catch up by the hints she drops in the narrative through speech and action and odd bits of history. It’s a difficult read for a while, until you actually start to understand that society, or at least get to the point where you know you’ll never really understand it. Either way, you get to a point where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

This genderless world has produced a variety of societies where anyone can do anything (worth noting that gender issues were big issues when this story was written as much as now, and if we’ve made progress since then, you’ll see it in your reaction to certain statements made by the character in the story who has a gender full time, the offworlder). And while there are many of the usual problems and crimes, there are some absent, including larger scale conflicts and wars. At least for the moment, and as far as recorded history goes on Gethen, but well before the middle of the book, there are strong suggestions that’s about to change.

Told in the first person, the main POV character is an offworlder and male, which is easy to keep hidden or at least unnoticed under the heavy clothing typical of a world locked in the grip of a long ice age.

We’re presented with two different societies in the book, the ones about to fall into war. In one, we have a strange monarchy everyone is completely responsible for their own actions and figuring things out on their own within a barely comprehensible social hierarchy. The other is very strictly regimented and controlled, but its citizens don’t seem to mind all that much, being all equal in every way at the beginning and end of their lives and making of things what they can in between as wards/employees of the state, a totalitarian state masquerading as the ultimate bureaucracy.

But both states, both societies, seem to have their own game of shifgrethor, coming from an old word for shadow in the local language, and meaning a wide variety of different things all packaged up into one word, perhaps (over)simplifying to a combination of face, pride, relationship status, and social authority. And even oversimplifying, I can’t simplify it enough to make a concise statement, but it does eventually make sense in the context of the story.

And I said main POV because there is more than one. The switch of POV in Ch 6 is jarring, and not just because it’s moving from one first person to another, but because there’s nothing to immediately identify the new POV. There are hints dropped early in the first chapter and, considering events early in this one, it’s a fairly simple thing to figure out whose head we’re in now. But it’s a surprise, and that’s probably the point. There are other POV changes, and they’re all in the first person, but the rest aren’t as jarring. I think this is mainly because those start out with a reference to a folk tale of the planet or a report from someone who spent time there and reported back. Like most of the rest of the book, the intention is probably to make the reader think and figure things out.

The themes I pick up through the book may all be based around gender, how its lack or fluctuation might affect societal evolution in isolation, and what it might do to personal interaction in such a society. There is an unfortunate amount of sexism from the only male POV character (whom I consider the main character), but that character is forced to re-examine what he considers normal through the course of the story. But most of that is so artfully woven into the story that it’s just naturally part of things. Gender is rarely discussed openly in the text, though we do have one instance of that gendered character trying, without much success, to explain the differences between men and women to the un-gendered, ambisexual character.

And considering the recent political tone on our continent, I found it interesting to see both early elements of the politics of fear in the narrative, and commentary on totalitarian control as well as monarchy and how it affects social development and “normal” sanity.

I do find it amusing that anyone is still using Fahrenheit, Pounds, and Miles tens (hundreds?) of thousands of years in the future on another world. That’s more an ease of understanding thing considering where and when the story was written, but in a book otherwise filled with odd concepts and genders, it stands out as odd to me.

Overall rating: 4 stars, leaning towards 4.5. This is SF that makes you think and more or less right from the first page through to the ending. If that’s not your thing, I’d probably advise you to stay away. If it is, dive in and enjoy, but try not to drown, because it’s very dense and very solid and very thought provoking.

And very good.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” (Near the end of Chapter 15.)

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