Tuesday 25 August 2009

Book Review: "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin

Geoff on the Galaxy Zoo Forum lent me Ursula LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness"; he has a habit of introducing me to some of the best books I have ever read.

This classic of science fiction was published in 1969, and is as up-to-date as though it came out yesterday. Perhaps that's a strange thing to say about a novel set thousands of years in the future, on a planet not our own. But perhaps it's a gentle mocking of our own history. Or even a warning to our race. Yet at the same time the world is wonderfully and convincingly completely foreign.

The planet in question is named Gethen, nicknamed "Winter" by the first humans to visit it, because its temperatures are permanently freezing. Its inhabitants, the Gethenians, are both similar to and different from humans, the most important difference being that they are all hermaphrodites.

The Gethenians have no space travel or knowledge of alien civilisations; so when an Envoy arrives from a far-future, much-improved Earth, offering them an alliance with many other worlds, they disbelieve and fear him. Not the sort of fear you'd expect; but you must find the details out for yourself. He begins the story in beautiful prose:

"I'll make my report as though I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling . . . The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better." The other tellers of the story are a Gethenian, a human scientist, and several short legends of two major countries on Gethen: Karhide and Orgoreyn. The legends shed much light on the world's religions, laws, traditions, and families. They are a treasure to read, and I could almost see sunlight making patterns on the ice as I did so.

They are also a delightful tickle to anyone keen on science, especially astronomy. One legend is about an all-seeing fellow named Meshe (well, I say "fellow"; the characters choose to use the pronoun "he" because it is less specific than "she" or "it"). He was all-seeing in the sense that "our doing is his Seeing: our being his Knowing" and that, to him, past and future are all the present. Apostrophes and entertaining but profound footnotes are used occasionally in the book; here is one such case:
Meshe saw all the sky as it it were all one sun . . . The stars that flee and take away their light all were presnt in his eye, and all their light shone presently.*

*This is a mystical expression of one of the theories used to support the expanding-universe hypothesis, first proposed by the Mathematical School of Sith over four thousand years ago and generally accepted by later cosmologists, even though meteorological conditions on Gethen prevent their gathering much observational support from astronomy. The rate of expansion (Hubble's constant; Rerherek's constant) can in fact be estimated from the observed amount of light in the night sky; the point here involved is that, if the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark.
Which is completely true, and was dubbed by one professor I had as "the simplest experiment you can do" (go out and look at the night sky - the fact that it's dark, rather than covered with stars, means the Universe must be expanding).

The inhabitants of Gethen all being the same sex is a major theme in the book, and the consequences of this anomaly are very far-reaching. The Gethenians do not go to war, and the Earthly protagonist remarks, "They behaved like animals, or like women" - which sounds like an insult, but also like a compliment, and was very funny. One chapter begins, "My landlady, a voluble man . . ." Not to mention, "The king was pregnant." Alongside the laughter is the totally unexpected, such as a warning to humans that their masculinity or femininity will never be appreciated on Gethen: "One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience." That which I would long for as a freedom and relief! Anyone can be a mother, or father, or both; everyone and no one is tied down and categorised. Their reproductive means are complicated, intriguing, and made me intensely curious - and rather wishful that we Earthlings could be like that, or at least that I could slip into the mind of a Gethenian to try it all out.

One aspect of real bravery in writing is not writing some of the things your book is saying. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, a point subtly made - which the reader works out for himself - is a stronger point than if it was spoon-fed. It takes even more courage to leave a plot dangling, the great question of the book never answered, as Cynthia Voigt does with "Sons from Afar". And what Ursula Leguin does at one point in the novel is to leave the readers' desires unfulfilled. There was a point in the book when I felt almost - being so very much inside the minds of the characters - that I would be able to "try it out"; but I was left unfulfilled. It was disturbingly clever. I was left in longing - left to speculate, left to care a lot more, so that the book was able to clobber me round the throat and leave me aching with sorrow. Not that the ending is all sorrowful: by the end, a healthy hope is growing for Gethen.

The whole book is disturbingly clever. It's not long, but has reams of satisfactory ingredients for a delicious read. It's got travels across this Arctic planet rich in detail; it's got alien tricks that appear almost magical (just as the human protagonist's equipment does to them); it's got adventure, toil, political intrigue, tragedy . . . It's also got mystery and beautifully constructed lack of understanding. The dialogue at first seems clunky, unrewarding, and containing little interesting information. As the reader gets to know and understand the Gethenian's different ways of communicating, you start to realise what they are really saying, and unlike some novels which involve misunderstandings it's chillingly plausible and inevitable. Largely because of this, good and evil wear each other's faces very convincingly, and the character you end up liking the best is not the one you expected to.

I found the book a bit hard to get into for the first chapter. At first I wasn't sure whether it was a Gethenian or the Envoy talking (it's the Envoy). But within a few pages, I was immersed in it; I could feel the cold and see the Gethenian streets and forests and faces. I was also a bit dubious about some of the science - I don't think any primates as advanced as them could have evolved on a planet with no other large or intelligent terrestrial animals, and I'm not convinced that an elliptical planetary orbit alone could cause seasons (the planet isn't very tilted; our Earth also has an elliptical orbit, and we're furthest from the Sun during summer if I remember correctly). I think there's also a hint at one point that capitalism and individuality means more concern for others, with which I didn't agree (though it had an important context with which I wouldn't argue); and I wanted to jump into the pages and start a row when a Gethenian remarks to himself "To be an atheist is to maintain God" - even though that again has an extremely specific context.

There is an awful lot to think about in that book, yet at no point did I feel any dryness, or information overload. Perhaps one of the most interesting things is the demonstration of two "ideals": one, the hermaphrodite state, in which everybody is equal; two, the Ekumen, a civilisation humanity has managed to attain whose morals and abilities make our present politics and countries look savage and stupid. I had a look on her website and it looks as if there are many more books about the Ekumen. "The Left Hand of Darkness" has the feel of one of those unique novels to me, one of those super-special ones whose sequels would never be as good - but I am impressed enough that I've every intention of reading more of Ursula LeGuin's work to find out. There's something for everyone in "The Left Hand of Darkness". I can't think of anyone who wouldn't find it interesting.

ISBN 978-1-85723-074-1


JeffR said...

Great review Alice!

Karen Masters said...

Great review Alice. I also loved this book when I read it, although I still haven't fulfilled my wish to read it with "she" instead of "he" as the pronoun (apparently there are such versions around).

I'm surprised by your statement that 'the characters choose to use the pronoun "he" because it is less specific than "she" or "it"'. As far as I can see, "he" is no less specific than "she".

Alice said...

Hi Karen, interesting. There is definitely the statement early on in the book that they choose "he" as the pronoun; it wasn't my choice. Perhaps it's just a difference in what we're used to. To me, "he" seems rather vague and can mean "she", especially in old-fashioned texts. Perhaps I did adapt to 1969 without knowing it! To me, "she" means a particular lady, whilst "he" can mean anybody! :)