Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

Can’t remember how this book turned up in our house, but we own it. It must be the mister again. I like Ursula K, although I think she can be a little uneven as a writer. Her Earthsea books are of course classic. It took me ages to read them, I didn’t get around to it until I was an adult, and then I read them all in one sweep. The differences between the first ones and the last in the series became very apparent then. The first ones are, really, better as fantasy novels, since the latter ones are more argumentative. I’d hate to use the word preachy, but I had only four hours of sleep so I will, since my brain can’t find me another word. However, I haven’t actually read a lot of her books. That becomes clear now that I’m looking at her website, and seeing the very impressive bibliography. The library probably has it all, amassed during the decades of authorship, so I’ll just have to dedicate myself. (Speaking of library, I managed to run in today after work, and wasn’t allowed to borrow a book since I had a 55 kr debt on my card for late books. Embarrassing. They’d all been returned though (my lovely husband comes through once again!), so it was just a matter of giving them what coins I had to get the debt under 50 kr, which is the magic limit. Take heed, and learn from my absentmindedness!)

Anyway, according to said bibliography The Left Hand of Darkness is also part of a series (although I’m guessing more loosely held together) – the Ekumen novels. The Ekumen is a sort of space UN of the future, that with tremendous patience sends emissaries to non-member planets, to establish some form of peaceful relationship, simply for knowledge really. They only send one, because one alien will not be seen as an invasion. Enter Genly Ai, a (probably black) human who has come to the planet Winter, or Gethen, as an emissary of the Ekumen, a planet curious in that the inhabitants have no gender, and that it should really be too cold to sustain life. It is almost always winter. Only when Gethenians are “in heat”, in kemmer, which occurs on a cyclical basis, do they develop full-grown genitalia. But this kemmer-induced gender is not static. One person can both father children and give birth to them during a lifetime. The planet has two main large countries, one a traditional monarchy ruled by despotic and insane royals, who nevertheless give their subjects a lot of personal freedom compared to the other, a Soviet-type modern state that appears open and forward-thinking – until you’re sent to a prison camp, naked. Genly Ai unwittingly becomes a political pawn, and ends up depending on the only person he was sure he couldn’t trust.

Ms Le Guin wrote the novel expressly to explore the subject of gender and duality. Is gender necessary? What happens if there is no gender, if we’re not ruled by our gender roles? If they become meaningless? Gethenians cry freely, but can be tough too. In my opinion the novel has become rather dated in its handling of the subject. Genly Ai thinks too much like a human of the 1960s, which jars a little when we’re supposed to imagine him in a completely different time. He talks about his masculine pride being wounded, whereas I can already see that men are coming away from such notions. So those weren’t my favourite bits. But that aside, it’s quite a marvellous, different secondary universe Le Guin has created here. I really must read the book again some time, I think I missed lots. It’s surprisingly dense, and doesn’t explain much – preferring to throw you right into the story. My favourite type of fantasy/sci fi!

And here’s the baby, so the end for now….

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