Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin

Author: Ursual Le Guin
Title: "Left Hand of Darkness"
Pages: 304
Publishers: Ace Books

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin is one of the most famous of her Hainish cycle with a Nebula Award for Best Books and rightly so. In the 300 or so, I accounted quite the plot and themes cramped inside with an ease. Just for that trait alone the book deserves its prize and praise, but once accounted with the depth of the world-building and characters, you can hardly deny that this is one of the greatest books ever written.

The setting this time is the planet Gethen, referred to sometimes as the planet Winter, because of its unfavorable cold weather, blamed for the lack of evolution and development of its original race. The main character this time is Genly Ai, a representative of the galactic federation of worlds, and his mission is to prepare Gethen for membership into the guild. His journey starts within the borders of Karhide, a primitive feudal kingdom. There under the guidance of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, he maneuvers trough the complicated political system, further entangled by the constant and yet subtle battle for personal shiftgrethor – social prestige. His mission fails with Estraven sent into exile and Genly tries with the neighbors aka Orgoreyn, which in terms of social life and politics seems to exceed Karhide. However yet again Genly loses to prejudice towards his abnormal biology (Gethenians are androgynous by nature), political games and plots against him, which lead to his imprisonment into a camp for criminals. Of course on his death bed Genly is saved by Estraven and they make a very long travel through ice and volcanoes to Karhide, where Genly calls his ship and his crew from the planet’s orbit in order to make the two countries believe his tales and join the federation.

Of course the plot I present to you is quite stripped from the subplots and all the interesting minor characters, who make their entrance and introduce more of the world and its spirituality. What excited me most is the apparent loss of gender along the way of evolution resulting in a species with no gentiles for 24 days of their 26 day month, while the last two days are spent in kemmer. In those two days pheromones battle in both partners until they settle on a gender. This choice is random, which makes it possible to both bear and sire children. To add even more exotic features to this biological species, Ursula le Guin mentions that incest is not forbidden. Alas I would have wished this peculiar trait to have been explored further with the psyche and its effect on its society.

The accent falls on inner duality and Zen-like religion and the ability to peer into the future. As we learn a Gethenian is a woman within a man and vice versa and their world and beliefs state that “light is the left hand of darkness, while darkness is the right hand of light”. These ideas hint towards the famous yin and yang sign, which is one of the most important symbols in Taoism and takes its place among many sub-religions in China. Similar ideas of religion are found in Gethen as well.

What I personally didn’t enjoy and left me a bit disappointed in the book was the political angle and the long journey through the barren lands. As a person, who likes a bit action seasoning on their literary plate, I felt compelled to sleep on the pages describing day after day surviving harsh cold winds, blizzards and chilling temperatures far below the zero mark. The long narratives on shiftgrethor tactics and political structures of both countries and the countless parties struggling for power. It can be said that I am not a major fan of political anything as it is boring to me a subject, but the manner in which Le Guin executed it was still very pleasing.

All in all this a very good book, but my heart still lies between the pages of “City of Illusions”. Nonetheless, you can’t say that you have read good literature unless you have read this work.


ThRiNiDiR said...

I think you wrote a great review, but the plot synopsis is a bit heavy on spoiler material - you might warn the reader beforehand.

You disliked the last third of the novel, I thought it best - where relationship between Genly and Estraven really shines the brightest.

daydream said...

Thank you for pointing that out, I am still figuring out what to add and what not in a plot synopsis. I see I crossed the border, at least I didn't mention who dies around the end.

I disliked the journey part of the third part, but not how the relationship between those two is handled. It really was a strong moment. Anyways haven't you thought that if they were on the road for two months, Estraven should have gone through kemmer twice and turned in a female as was shown in the book along the journey for that prison camp?

ThRiNiDiR said...

I've read the book quite a while ago so I'm not that confident with the details, but as far as I remember I thought the sexual tension and friendship was portraied and develped very well - if I'm not mistaken then Estraven choose not to become women without Genly's consent; he was a pround and perceptive (wo)man and he saw the discomfort within Genly and he didn't want to press the matter.

Dark Wolf said...

This is one of the best novels I've read ever.

daydream said...

Thrinidir: Hugh, how the heck did I miss that one. I shall never ever read a book, when I am half asleep. Geez, now I have to read about the ending pages, again.

Dark Wolf: I can't agree more. It's definitely one of the best out there. Just wished I could enjoy it more.

bloggeratf said...

The walk through the ice was the most enlightening to me. You only get to know another 'human' being when faced with hardship and everything else is stripped away. It was made all the more meaningful by the fact that it was two aliens discovering one another.

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