Tuesday, May 29, 2012

41. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

There is something about being in the Bay Area that really brings out the nerd in me.  Ever since I've gotten here, I've wanted to read more and more sci-fi and possibly even fantasy.  Given a choice, I will generally lean towards crime or action over sci-fi.  But in the last week or two, I've been scouring the local used bookstores, as well as the two excellent sci-fi and fantasy bookstores (Dark Carnival and The Other Change of Hobbit) and feeling the desire more and more to delve into other worlds and concepts.  This desire has gotten me to thinking about the Bay Area and the west coast in general.  I think this is a very sci-fi part of the world.  First of all, California really feels like "planet earth", in the sense that you can often see the moon in the middle of the day (reminding you that you live on a planet floating in space) the plants are weirdly alien and that many (probably most) sci-fi movies and television shows were shot in California (Star Trek, Planet of the Apes).  Second, California and the Bay Area in particular is the rich center of nerd history.  And it makes sense if you think about it.  It's the west, where first settlers came, people who were brave and curious and wanted (or needed) somewhere new to live.  It's also the point where many of the GIs shipped off to the Second World War and, coming back, decided they liked it here.  Think of what a lot of those guys reading material was back then, manly adventure and sci-fi stuff.  Plus, a lot of them were engineers, who are interested in gadgets and building cool stuff.  I don't know, could be all a bunch of hoo-haa but I'm going to take advantage of it while the spirit is in me and get some good classic sci-fi reading done.

I believe that Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a pretty classic piece of sci-fi literature.  Having stayed up late to finish the last 100 pages last night, I would have to agree and add that it is also a cracking good adventure story (at least the second half which is basically a gripping 800-mile trek through an ice planet's freezing northern pole).  I guess, other than a few short stories, this is the only book that takes place in the Ekumen universe.  It's a shame, because it is such a rich concept for a series (so says the guy always complaining about excessive trilogies and series).  The Ekumen represent a loose federation of planets.  Their mission is to find other planets with sentient life and to ask them to join them.  Their mandate is non-aggressive, mainly managing communications, fostering trade and organizing data (services which are much needed where ideas can be shared much easier than actual stuff due to the time involved in travel).  They first send investigators who study the planet in secret.  When they decide it has potential, they send a single Envoy, whose job it is to find the best way to approach the polity (or polities) of the planet and make the Ekumen's offer.  Obviously, this is quite complicated and potentially dangerous in practice. 

In this case, the planet is Gethen or Winter and it is basically a frozen planet with a ring of civilization around its equator.  The people are hardy, stolid and have a very different method of reproduction than us.  They are basically asexual except for a period of a week where they go into kemmer, become sexually active and then either take a male or female form (not quite sure how they decide this) and get it on.  What's interesting sociologically, from the Envoy's perspective, is that because of this set-up, sex is not really present in Gethenian culture.  They get right into it when it is the kemmer, but the rest of the time, because there are no genders, no sexual hierarchy and no sexual frustration or dominance, it makes for a very different society.  The other factor is the cold.  Everybody is fighting to survive and if you transgress, punishment is to be exiled and turned away, which almost always means death in the cold.

So you can see how in 1969 when this book was released, it caused a bit of a stir.  I imagine it was probably an exciting read for a lot of young nerds not sure about their own gender preferences.  What I really enjoyed about it in today's post-feminist environment was how reasonably and thoughtfully LeGuin addresses the subject.  This to me is where science fiction is the best.  She isn't telling us what should be or what is good, simply what is (and she goes into this in an annoyingly cutesy 1976 introduction).  By maintaining an outsider's perspective (that of the Envoy) as well as creating a richly-imagined, logically-consistent world, she gets us to question our own perspectives and beliefs most effectively.  It's very elegantly done.

Though the gender theme is what made this book famous, I think it is actually much more of a story of a friendship and about two people from very different cultures trying to bridge the differences between them.  The overarching storyline is about the Envoy trying to make his way among the machinations of the governments of Gethen, almost the entire second half of the book follows the Envoy and a disgraced politician as they make an epic journey across the planet's icefields.  It's a thrilling outdoor adventure, especially cool because they do have some great tech with them, but it is still a harrowing, survivalist affair.  It is also about the two people (one is a man and the other a Gethenian) coming to understand each other and becoming friends.  It's quite touching.

So in short, super cool book and deserved sci-fi classic.  I note also the LeGuin was born in Berkeley!

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