Friday, 3 July 2009

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K Le Guin will be making room on her crowded awards shelf for a 2009 Nebula Award (for the YA novel "Powers"). I recently read Le Guin's novel "The Left Hand of Darkness," also a Nebula winner. It's a well deserved win - a book that really demonstrates the power of sci-fi to explore our society. It's also well worth the original 1963 RRP of 35 pence. Darkness is set on the planet of Winter, a permanently frozen world populated by hermaphrodites who spend most of their lives in a latent, neuter state, temporarily becoming male or female on a cyclical basis.

With similarities to Iain M. Banks' later Culture novels, Winter is visited first by secret observers, then by the envoy Genly Ai, from the 80-world Ekumen, an advanced society of humanoid races descended from or created by the Hain hundreds of millenia before. Genly examines this unusual society and the question of gender identity from an external viewpoint - Le Guin speculates about whether sexual drive might go hand in hand with the ability to nationalise or mobilise for war. On a smaller scale, however, the inhabitants "kill each other in ones or twos" and are capable of political intrigue and rivalry to match anything on Earth. The people of Winter are a slow people but Ai has come at a time of change - at least one nation has become more organised, and if this is repeated elsewhere the stage may be set for war. Ai's arrival itself will have enormous consequences for the planet and its' society.

The hermaphroditic society of Winter initially seems contrived, and at times it's unclear whether this is supposed to be an all-male or an all-neuter society, but it quickly becomes a detailed and consistent reality. This is accompanied by a description of a planet with a severe geology and weather system that has shaped it's inhabitants as much as their gender.


Jigsaw said...

I love Sci Fi books and read this because of its reputation but it was very drawn out i thought.It has a great premise but I found it dull and didnt go anywhere.A lot of effort was put into the realism of the world in the book and that was one good thing about it.I think it was too deep for me!

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Hi Jigsaw! I really got into this book but am thinking a lot about how reading more recent novels can change your expectations of older ones - might write more about this at some point. Also this book is definitely darker than some of le Guin's other novels - I wondered if you'd read any of the other books and how you'd found them?