Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Rating: Good

Somehow I feel this review will get me into trouble, but the truth is that while I think The Left Hand of Darkness is a good book, I don't think it's a great book. I've read it at least twice before - once in high school, I think, when I was still naive enough not to pick up on some of it - but it's been so long now that I remembered almost nothing at all.

So it's not a great book, but I do think the concepts are interesting, and that personal interactions are a good basis for a story. It's not like I wanted a space opera instead. My issues are different.

The first is problem of pacing. This is most apparent in Genly and Estraven's trek across the ice. That could have been whittled down a lot - perhaps to just a few pages. I know that Le Guin is trying to put them in a position where Estraven comes into kemmer with Genly as his only companion, and where they have to work together closely - and come to know each other better - to survive, but I simply didn't find that section all that engaging.

I also didn't find the end all that impressive. Estraven's death isn't well thought out or explained, and the rest of the plot issues are resolved too quickly and easily.

More importantly, I didn't buy into the idea that the sexual differences between Gethens and "normal" humans would make that much difference in their behavior. There were places where I thought she really reached too far to drive her point home in this area, and that only exacerbated the fact that I didn't buy into the argument in the first place.

But I'm writing this in 2007 and the book was originally published in 1969. We've seen some cultural changes in those 38 years, I admit. Maybe, as a female author working at that time, there were problems that she had to face that are now (hopefully) less common. Maybe I'm an odd case, since I think women are the equals of men in just about everything, and where we differ, it's a matter of interest, but not something that would (or should) hold anyone back. Maybe I am totally blind to my own prejudices, though I am certain I don't "converse with the third button on a woman's blouse," as I've heard it described.

And certainly there are people, even now, who are backwards in that way; who think women should be subservient to men, and prevented from doing some things. There are those who think of women only as sexual objects or even as chattel. But I hope that those problems - like those of racism - are on the decline, and that at least in the western world women feel empowered to do whatever they want. I certainly support that in every way I can.

Maybe I'm too "enlightened" (to pick a word I hate in this context) to really understand the point Le Guin is driving at, but I rather doubt it. If the culture has shifted so that her point is less relevant now, that's great, but that I doubt as well. My own thought is that the issue was exaggerated for the purposes of the story, and I didn't suspend my disbelief to the depth needed.

In the end I think this is a good book and it explores some interesting literary territory, but to my mind it's not quite right. I simply don't think that sex - and more specifically the sexual differences between men and women - are as central to every aspect of our relationships as Le Guin suggests they are. And it's hard to imagine anything that serious has changed since the late 60's either, though I wasn't paying attention to relationship dynamics at that level at the time. (Being significantly less than ten years old at the time this was published, I have no idea what I was worried about.)

On the other hand, I found the concept of shifgrethor fascinating. That's a place where differences (cultural in this case) could be very real and problematic.

I can recommend this book as an example of a good kind of science fiction - though the nearly pointless presence of telepathy and accurate fortune telling makes it border on fantasy in my definition. At its root, though, this is a book about politics and relationships, albeit one set in a background where sexual differences are pointed out with flashing, neon arrows.