The Left Hand of Darkness

(Quick reminder – I am back in school so columns will be catch as catch can.)

One of the best things about the science fiction and fantasy class I am taking is how it forces me to read, or reread stories and novels I either couldn’t bring myself to finish or didn't like the first time around. Last week we took a look at Ursula K. Le Guin's groundbreaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

The last time I tried to read this book I don't think I got past page two. It's a little on the impenetrable side at the beginning. It's all alien words and description, which made me feel like I'd be happier reading a geometry text book. Of course this time around I realized that the entire book isn't like that, just the beginning. Once I was past the start everything was fine.

LHOD takes place on a planet called Gethen, nicknamed Winter. It's in an ice age and in the summer the residents complain of the heat if the temperature gets up to sixty degrees Fahrenheit. There isn't much high caloric food – not much meat and no dairy – and the inhabitants have to eat several times a day.

Into this frigid land comes Genli Ai, an ambassador from a loose federation of planets. He is here to negotiate the idea of Gethen joining the group, which will result in trade and other positives for the planet. As the story begins Ai is preparing for a meeting with the king. He has been prepping with the Prime Minister, called Estraven, but everything falls apart when the King banishes Estraven.

I've seen quite a few people complain that the novel has no plot. They think it focuses on gender issues only (which I will explain in a moment) but I heartily disagree. LHOD includes a thousands of kilometers chase across the ice without enough food or supplies, more than one murder, betrayal, government experimentation, and a mad king. That seems like lots of plot and excitement to me. I've also heard a couple of complaints about the ice trek, saying it was dull and took too long. Some important character revelations and growth take place during the journey, so it's important on that level, but it's also a race against death from starvation or exposure. I'm the kind of person who finds that sort of thing suspenseful. But then I like reading stories about mountain climbing and trying to find the Northwest Passage.

There is also plenty of exposition and lots of explanations of how things work on Winter. The people of Gethen, who are human, have no gender. They stay in a neutral state until they go into kemmer, which is when they are ready to either father a child or become pregnant. Kemmer lasts a few days each month and the same person can be a father one time and a mother the next. One of the characters states that when you take sex out of the equation there will be no rape and no war. There are little forays across various barriers but no full on wars as they exist in the rest of the settled universe.

In the fascinating introduction to the book (which you should read even if you don't actually read the novel) Ms. Le Guin describes LHOD as a thought experiment. She also discusses the nature of science fiction and writing. Later she wrote an essay called “Is Gender Necessary”, followed by another essay called "Is Gender Necessary? Redux", in which she talks about how gender relates to the novel and comments on errors she made, like using the word “he” to describe the inhabitants of Gethen.

If you weren't alive when the book was written it may be hard to imagine how LHOD could be groundbreaking. Much of what it has to say about gender is no longer new. But imagine that one of the characters on Mad Men were reading it and maybe you can get a feel for how important and thought provoking the novel really is.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a novelette from the Tor website. Called Swift, Brutal Retaliation and written by Meghan McCarron, it tells the story of a family suffering from grief and rage. Two sisters are haunted by the ghost of their older brother, who was an angry prankster before he became ill and doesn't seem any happier now that he has passed away. It's a beautifully told story with characters that make you want to snatch them away from their parents. http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/01/swift-brutal-retaliation