The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

Enjoy!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I’d read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin’s worldbuilding and there’s a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn’t become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I’d like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it’s just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven’s eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin’s worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can’t make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it’s a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Isaac Yuen

“You are our history. We are perhaps your future. I want to learn, not ignore. It is the reason I came. We must know each other. We are not primitive men. Our morality is no longer tribal, it cannot be. Such ignorance is a wrong, from which wrong will arise. So I come to learn.” (p 75)

The Dispossessed features two diametrically opposing societies: Urras is technologically advanced and ecologically balanced, but suffers from extreme social injustice. Anarres is strong in the areas of equality and human relations, but lacks non-human connections and entrepreneurial innovation. A lot of Le Guin’s personal Taoist philosophy can be seen in this fictional universe – each world’s weakness is its counterpart’s strength and vice versa, the yin to the other’s yang. Yet Urras and Anarres also share something in common, a tragic fundamental flaw. Both are only aware of the present, ignorant of the realities of their shared pasts and the possibility of new futures. On Urras, Vea proclaims that the horrific injustices of past centuries “couldn’t happen now” (p 217), even as fellow citizens suffer in nearby slums (p 291) and are shot dead by the State (p 302). On Anarres, Shevek’s mother Rulag clings stubbornly to isolationist attitudes seven generations old, perceiving the rest of humanity as enemies of society. (p 355) Indoctrinated by propaganda and shaped by social norms, many Urrasti and Anarresti can no longer envision change, have become afraid to take risks, and so have lost the ability to imagine a better society. Things are as they are and must always be. Shevek serves as witness to both worlds’ failings. Acting out of his own initiative, he disrupts the status quo, embarking on a journey to “shake things up, to store, up, to break some habits, to get people asking questions” (p 384). Whether he succeeds in affecting lasting change in either society is left deliberately unresolved (a wise decision, I think). The A-Io government crushes the working class demonstration. Shevek travels home not knowing what kind of reception he will receive when he steps foot on Anarres. True to real-life, nothing is ever safe or certain for revolutions or revolutionaries. But by the end of the story, new conditions have been created, and with it, new hopes and possibilities.

Shevek’s struggle to connect Urras and Anarres parallels his work as a physicist. Throughout The Dispossessed, Shevek attempts to merge the theory of Sequency – the notion that time is linear and successive, with the theory of Simultaneity – the idea that time is cyclical and eternal. This proves impossible until he learns to embrace and accept time’s inherent contradiction, to grant legitimacy for its dual nature to coexist as a whole. One of the things I love about The Dispossessed is how Le Guin portrays science and those who do science – I find that few authors do either justice. Her depiction of temporal physics strikes a careful balance – it feels real without getting too abstruse or explanatory. In Shevek Le Guin beautifully captures the temperament and nuances of a great scientist: That innate curiosity towards the world; a singular dedication to work; the craving for an exchange of ideas; a lifelong passion for grasping a larger truth. To me, Shevek embodies the essence of the scientific spirit, with roots in the natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

Many people think science is about the end products – novel inventions, new technologies, gadgets for easier living. But while it may lead to such things, The Dispossessed’s portrayal of science and scientists reminds me that science is at its heart a method of inquiry, a process used to both better understand and appreciate the universe, and done by real and flawed human beings to derive meaning and purpose. As Shevek’s story demonstrates, this can be an extremely frustrating and difficult journey. But it is one well worth taking.

Walls are the central recurring image in The Dispossessed. Throughout his life, Shevek encounters many negative ones, constructed upon foundations of manipulation and exploitation. In a supposedly egalitarian society, he experiences how his colleague Sabul wields public opinion and ignorance to control the flow of new ideas and gain power over others. On Urras, Shevek sees how the elites wall themselves off from the suffering of their brethren with their possessions and status. On a societal level, he recognizes how Anarres has barricaded itself not only from Urras, but from the planets of Hain and Terra and the rest of humanity. At each turn, Shevek strives to unbuild these walls, but at great personal cost: He is dismissed from the Physics Institute, branded a traitor by his fellow Anarresti for reaching out to other worlds, and targeted as an insurrectionist by the A-Ioti government. Yet Shevek continues to take the risks. His story makes a strong case for Roosevelt’s adage that “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty”. By suffering dearly, by understanding that “even pain counts”, by “working with time instead of against it” (p 335), Shevek comes to realize what he is capable of, how he can best serve his society, and how to walk the path towards a meaningful life.

In a fascinating paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Harvard researchers explore the differences between living a happy versus a meaningful life. Happiness, they found, is “mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money” (p 14). Meaningfulness, however, is “linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others” (p 14), with its undertaking often involving choices that directly diminish happiness. While there are overlapping factors that contribute to both qualities, the researchers argue that happiness is primarily a present-oriented endeavour, while meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. This connects strongly to The Dispossessed. As one who sees life through the lens of time, Shevek uses temporal physics to frame his thoughts on pursuing happiness without meaning and on fidelity’s role in creating purpose:

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell. It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.” (p 334)

Out of everything in the novel, it is Shevek’s realization of promise as temporal reconciliation that most resonates with me. For Shevek, fulfillment comes from understanding the consequences of one’s past actions and using one’s freedom to create a responsible, compassionate, and ethical future. This line of thought is tremendously appealing.

“Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” (p 225)

I’ve always wondered what draws me to environmentalism. It is not guilt like it is for so many, nor anger – I have not the stamina to sustain it. Yet love, that all encompassing reverence so many feel towards nature doesn’t quite fit either. As I reread The Dispossessed and reflect upon my life, I can see that perhaps like Shevek, it arises from a desire to understand cause and effect, means and ends. Blessed with the freedom to do anything, perhaps I chose environmentalism because it brings to light the consequences of human action on the global community, casts the widest net for responsibility, and is the most challenging to develop an ethic for. How shall I empathize with an ecosystem? What are my duties to a swarm of mosquitoes? How should I feel about the farmer who burns down a forest to provide for his family? What can I do to connect with a CEO who whole-heartedly believes his company makes the world a better place? These are hard questions to grapple with. But as Le Guin writes, “the human being likes to be challenged, seeks freedom in adversity” (p 246). Neither is the label of an environmentalist an easy thing to take on. It is an identity steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction, often saddled with despair and uncertainties. But I realize now that it has never occurred to me to escape the difficulty by denying the commitment, for the cause has grounded my life and given me purpose, even as it leads to much headache and heartache, especially in light of the ecological crisis we face today. But promises are like that, as Le Guin again notes:

“A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice. As Odo pointed out if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.” (p 244)

And so I choose to keep coming back, to my path, and to this book. As it is for Shevek, the process of undertaking and keeping promises gives me direction, affords me the chance to try, to do better and be better, as an individual, a partner, a steward, and a citizen. I may never get there, and things always going to be a work-in-progress, but I am excited to continue to learn, grow, write, think and connect. There’s so much more to say about the intellectual and emotional journeys The Dispossessed continues to take me on, but I fear doing what Hannah Arendt warns against: To define the story so much that its power is lost. So I will leave things “a bit broken loose” (p 384). For those who have read the novel, I hope this revisit helps spark what the book means to you. To those who haven’t, I hope this series will help you discover Shevek’s story for yourself.

This review originally appeared on Ekostories, and is the final part of four-part discussion of The Dispossessed. See parts one, two and three here, here and here.

Rocannon’s World, Ursula K Le Guin

rocannonsworldRocannon’s World, Ursula K Le Guin (1966)
Review by admiral ironbombs

They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate, and lacking any first-person forms for the verb ‘to be unable.’ There were no gods in their legends, only heroes.

I was surprised to find out that Ursula K Le Guin’s first published novel was an Ace Double, paired with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign. Much like Davidson’s half, Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World is more science fantasy than science fiction, a sword-and-planet romp that includes many of the tropes we now associate with high fantasy literature. Yet it still fits into her Hainish Cycle, a body of works that includes her award winners The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. It sprung from ‘Semley’s Necklace’, a short in a 1964 issue of Amazing that became the prologue to Rocannon’s World. It’s a good introduction because, reading it, you dive into the exotic yet familiar world of Le Guin’s creation where “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (to quote Clarke).

An ethnologist working for the League of All Worlds, Rocannon’s survey mission to the planet Fomalhaut II went smoothly… until an unknown adversary destroyed his spaceship from orbit, killing his companions. Stranded on this primitive alien planet, Rocannon sets out to track down the base of this enemy somewhere on the other side of the planet, in hopes that he can get to their ‘ansible’ – a device which can send communications at FTL speeds – so he can warn the League. Coming with him is the local feudal lord Mogien and his men-at-arms; riding cat-horse hybrids called windsteeds, the small group must travel through perilous, unmapped continents to reach the enemy encampment. And once there, what good are Bronze Age-level weapons against lasers and attack helicopters? These are near-insurmountable odds, but Rocannon will not let his companions’ deaths go unpunished; he may lose that which he values most, but Rocannon will stop these aggressors…

Rocannon’s World falls into the sub-genre of sword-and-planet that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, among others, carved out in the pulps: an Earthman of the future finds himself stranded on a primitive (Bronze/Iron Age) planet, forced to trek in search of some goal on the other side of the world, finding strange creatures and customs – and plenty of adventure – along the way. As such, it has a lot of the tropes of a fantasy novel: swordfights and magic (psychic) powers and strange beasts, with a science fiction twist. For example, the “dwarf” equivalents recieved cultural advancement in the form of Industrial Age technology from the League of All Worlds, until Rocannon’s recommendations put a stop to it. Purists may be dissatisfied by the lack of hard science or traditional science fiction themes; all others will probably be too distracted by the adventure and rich-world building to care.

Said worldbuilding and alien cultures are where the book feels most like Le Guin. The daughter of an anthropologist, Le Guin’s works are less focused on the “hard” sciences and more on the “soft” ones – anthropology, sociology, and psychology in particular. There’s an array of species living on Fomalhaut II, each with their own distinct culture and society painted in broad strokes – the strange caste system between the humanoid species, the half-sized humanoids with latent telepathy, the strange race of insectoid builders both blind and deaf. The prose also felt like pure Le Guin; a bit rough perhaps, but it has her cleverness and flow. See this segment about Rocannon, going under the name Olhor (“wanderer”), with cryptic references to the novel’s elements:

The little Name-Eaters, the Kiemhrir, these are in old songs we sing from mind to mind, but not the Winged Ones. The friends, but not the enemies. The sunlight, not the dark. And I am companion of Olhor who goes southward into the legends, bearing no sword. I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness. I am only a half-person. I cannot go farther than the hills. I cannot go into the high places with you, Olhor!

Le Guin’s writing evokes the fantastic and the wonder of this world; romanticized but not cloying or sappy, flowing like a rich tapestry yet never over-wrought or over-written. It bounds along full of energy, a fast-paced novel that kept me invigorated until its stunning conclusion. The finale is a series of wicked twists, defying my expectations and adding emotional weight to the story. “And I wish never to again be where I might hear the voices of my enemies…” becomes a powerful conclusion, a reference not to what has been lost but what he gained during his journey.

And a few comments on ‘Semley’s Jewel’, the short story turned prologue, in which princess Semley sets out to get a family heirloom back. To do so, she needs help from the subterranean, dwarf-like Gdemiar, whose technology was advanced to the Industrial Age… and who were gifted a small starship which can visit the interstellar museum where the necklace was donated. It’s science fiction seen through the lens of fantasy, and in a twist on the Rip-van-Winkle magical sleep theme, Semley’s trip across the black seas of night involves near-lightspeed time dilation, and she returns home to find years have passed. Rocannon collects the necklace during his survey trip, and while it’s referenced several times during his journey it failed to turn out to be some magical macguffin as I expected. Props to Le Guin for side-stepping that trope, though there are two more books in my omnibus version, and for all I know the necklace may be back.

Le Guin’s inauspicious début is a pretty good novel; it doesn’t stand out as a masterwork like so many of her later books, but it treads the planetary romance/sword-and-planet path without devolving into a hackneyed pastiche. The book does exactly what it says on the tin: flying cats, swords and blasters, adventure and mystery, its finale an unexpected surprise, delivered in Le Guin’s top-notch prose. In terms of planetary romance, Le Guin was no Leigh Brackett – then again, as her later novels prove, she was capable of writing far greater books than many SF writers can dream of. While it has some rough edges, Rocannon’s World does two things well: it foreshadows Le Guin’s later greatness, and tells a pretty decent SF adventure story. If you’re like me and enjoy a good planetary romance, you’ll probably love it. Otherwise, I’ll point you at the rest of Le Guin’s oeuvre and let you run wild.

This review originally appeared on Tattered, Battered, Yellowed & Creased.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Thousands of years from now, the myriad colony worlds of Hain (including Earth) are being reunited under a new interstellar government, the Ekumen. Genly Ai is the First Envoy, who sets foot alone onto the surface of the frigid planet of Winter (Gethen to its inhabitants) to bring offers of trade, peace and alliance to the people of the planet. However, the genderless inhabitants (who only have sexual urges and genders for a brief period once a month) are sceptical of Ai’s claims, and he soon finds himself a pawn of political factions in two neighbouring countries eager to use or discard him as they see fit.

The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969. It is set in a shared future history which Le Guin has used for several other novels and short stories, though foreknowledge of these other works is completely unnecessary to read this book. The novel also has a formidable reputation as one of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction novels in the history of the genre, noted for its complex themes and its use of metaphors to tackle a wide variety of literary ideas.

The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious, but these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers.

Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet’s cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.

Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen’s past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology (there’s also an appendix which handily collates this information into an easy-to-find collection). The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai’s bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties, whilst Estraven’s characterisation is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light.

The themes that the novel tackles extend far beyond the obvious ones of gender and climate. Duality (expressed in Ai’s discussion of Taoism with Estraven), faith, the difficulties of communication even when language is shared and politics are also discussed and examined. But where The Left Hand of Darkness impresses is that these thematic discussions are woven into the narrative in a manner that is seamless and stands alongside a compelling plot. The book’s climax, where the two main characters have to traverse a 700-mile-wide icecap with limited supplies, is a fantastic adventure narrative in its own right.

Complaints are few. Written in the 1960s, Le Guin presents a few outdated ideas on gender roles and sexuality that were common at the time, but these are minor issues at best.

Overall, The Left Hand of Darkness is a smart and intelligent read that has a lot to say and does so in a manner that is page-turning, compelling, relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly concise (the novel clocks in at a slim 250 pages in paperback). One of the all-time classics of the genre and a book that more than deserves its reputation.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Zhenya Bourova

Feminists have been reading, and re-reading, The Left Hand of Darkness for a long time. Le Guin herself returned to the book and its setting more than once as her feminism developed alongside and through her writing. Now, over four decades after it was first published in 1969, the text itself has become bound up with the history of its interpretations.

I first read The Left Hand of Darkness two years ago. Pushing away the image that had imprinted upon my mind’s eye – those two tiny figures, all alone upon the ice – I remember feeling smug and ready to criticise. The book had begun, in Le Guin’s own words, as a “thought-experiment”: she “eliminated gender, to find out what was left”. Yet in insisting so strongly upon a people in whom the masculine and the feminine were blended, Le Guin made the gender binary – and the very idea of masculine and feminine characteristics – even stronger. If there was a radical point to that experiment – that is, the deconstruction of gender, as opposed to its hypothetical elimination — then the experiment had failed.

Reading it now, I feel that the book is not so much about that experiment as it is about impossibilities. The impossibilities created by our insistence upon dualities; the impossibility of representation, by the self and of the other, and also the impossibility of contact between the two. It is about the violence done to the other’s subjecthood in ascribing them to one half of a duality, and the impossibility of exiting a worldview premised on dualities to see an other as they really are.

The plot is sparse and far from fast-paced, but in a good way. A man, Genly Ai, comes as an envoy from Earth to the planet Gethen, seeking to persuade its rulers to join a coalition of eighty-three planets called the Ekumen. Gethen has an Earth-like atmosphere, but a semi-arctic climate, for which, on other worlds, it is known as Winter. But most of all it is a world set apart by the biology of its inhabitants, who are androgynous and sexually inactive except for an oestrus period each month known as kemmer. During kemmer, the Gethenians can take on the role of either male or female, in sex and also in reproduction. The rest of the time, Gethen is a society without sex.

The effect of the Gethenians’ ambisexuality, we are told, is multiple:

“Anyone can turn his hand to anything… The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be… ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically… Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.”

On Gethen, Genly is seen as a “pervert”, a “sexual freak” whose state of “permanent kemmer” and fixed maleness make him the subject of both suspicion and wonder. When he fails to convince the paranoid, capricious (and pregnant) king of Karhide to form an alliance with planets beyond his own, he decides to try his luck in the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, which has a very different government. Arrested and taken to a labour camp in the far north of Orgoreyn, he is rescued by Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who was once Genly’s patron at the court of Karhide. Together, the two of them undertake an incredible eighty-day journey back to Karhide across the Gobrin Glacier.

At first, despite the book’s far-flung setting, this sounds incredibly familiar. The male hero, by going on a physical journey through an unfamiliar and threatening landscape, undergoes a transformation. But for me, the most interesting part of the book is the extent to which that transformation does not, and can never, succeed, due to the effect of symbolically entrenched binaries and hierarchies on Genly’s ability to make connections with others.

When the story begins, Genly has been on Gethen for over a year. Yet he has by no means come to terms with being surrounded by people who, for three-quarters of the time, have no sex at all. He insists on labelling the Gethenians he encounters as either “masculine” or “feminine”, despite himself acknowledging that this is a purely artificial game – and one that usually fails. When he asks his building superintendent, whose curvy figure and “prying, spying, ignoble, kindly” nature lends itself to the label “landlady”, if “he” has borne children, he is answered in the negative; the lady has borne none, but sired four.

But the way Genly plays the game also betrays his internalised misogyny. The characteristics he associates with femaleness – in the absence of females capable of serving him as sexual objects – are mostly negative. He admits to disliking and distrusting Estraven’s “femininity”, which he describes as “all charm and tact and lack of substance”. At any sign of shiftiness, spying, intrigue, playfulness – but also, later, softness and vulnerability – in a Gethenian, he categorises them as female (and therefore other to himself). His difficulty with Estraven, then, is one of intimacy. Knowing him better than anyone else in Karhide, he cannot truly call him either a man or a woman without knowing the insufficiency of either label. And yet as long as he is unable to perceive Estraven as “an integral man”, he is also unable to trust him.

To some extent, this changes out on the ice. Genly is forced to confront the violence that his insistence on a gender binary does to the non-conforming subjectivity of his companion. When Estraven goes into kemmer, Genly realises that all along he had been pretending not to see the female in him:

“Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality… I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.”

But to what extent does Genly – to whom even the women of his own world are “more alien” than the Gethenians – become capable of accepting that kind of “reality”? Reflecting on their journey, Genly later concludes that he and Estraven “had touched, in the only way [they] could touch”. Yet was it only the man (who was also a woman) that he reached out to?

One conversation between Genly and Estraven suggests that it is not possible to transcend thinking in terms that divide and bisect the other, while remaining intelligible to oneself.

“You are isolated, and undivided,” Genly says to Estraven. “Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”
“We are dualists too,” Estraven replies. “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”
“I and Thou…Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex…”

It is impossible for Genly to conceive of wholeness. But then, is it possible for anyone? Genly is unable to conceive of an other as a full person. He can only reach out and touch – the mindspeech between him and Estraven is certainly some kind of connection – but to represent that connection, or the being with whom that connection was made — that’s something else altogether. This connection remains depressingly untranslated, by the end of the book, into the ability to see the Gethenians for who they really are.

Or, for that matter, to really see women.

“There are no women in it”, wrote Joanna Russ of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1972. The absence of women is not only a result of Le Guin’s (later regretted) insistence upon using the masculine pronoun ‘he’ throughout the book. It is also exacerbated by the fact that although the book insists that the Gethenians are manwomen, we see almost nothing of their alleged femaleness (except for the associations made by Genly). We see nothing of childbearing, or child rearing. If no one on Gethen is quite so free as a male anywhere else, or as “tied down” as women elsewhere, we are shown only the freedom, and nothing of the being “tied down”.

The woman-shaped gap in The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be very much a consequence of Le Guin’s commitment, when the book was written, to a bourgeois individualist writing tradition – and to a science fiction that answered questions about what another world might look like only in relation to its male population. It was, after all, written at a time when a major category of science fiction comprised what Russ described as “intergalactic suburbia” – where the world building, however imaginative in relation to things like technology, left unquestioned the gendered division of labour, and replicated on faraway planets the core values of the American middle class.

To be fair, Le Guin’s “thought-experiment” does question the universality of some of these values. For instance, the book does not export laissez-faire capitalism to Gethen (though the precise nature of the economics of Karhide and Orgoreyn is left relatively vague). Gethen is also a planet that has never known war. Yet a comment by Genly makes it clear that the causal link between biological sex and the division of labour is one thing that will not be questioned:

“It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child rearing…”

Genly’s assumption – that women’s biological role in reproduction should also be determinative of the division of labour in the raising of children – is a depressing outlook for what is supposed to be a league of (I repeat, eighty-three!) futuristic worlds. If Gethen is to be the odd one out, it is doubly to be expected that the allocation of responsibility for the raising of children – not to mention the structure of a family – will be a point of interest to an outsider (and certainly to the reader, looking in). There is no excuse for deeming that side of life too matter of course – too humble, too ordinary – to be the subject of a novel.

And yet, for all its shortcomings, The Left Hand of Darkness has a feminist following well beyond the usual readership of science fiction. Perhaps this is not so much because of what the book has to say about gender as it is about the questions that it leaves unanswered – and the questions it inspires.

Perhaps it is also because its shortcomings have been acknowledged by Le Guin herself, who admitted that the book had Estraven doing only “manly things” during his journey across the ice, and regretted locking the Gethenians into heterosexuality. After over 20 years of experience as a feminist, Le Guin admitted that in her early years as a writer, she did not yet “know how to write about women”. Certainly the story ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, published nearly 30 years after The Left Hand of Darkness, focuses back on the family, gives an insight into Gethenian child rearing practices, and incorporates same-sex encounters into the story. And Le Guin’s later works – such as the other stories that make up The Birthday of the World (2002), and her latest instalments in the Earthsea saga – also focus directly on the perspectives of women, without marginalising their experiences.

The Left Hand of Darkness thus becomes more than a thought-experiment. In being bound up with its many re-readings, it also becomes about the growth and development of Le Guin as a writer, and the journeys traced by her and other feminists in the context of science fiction. It becomes about the growth of the women who read and re-read it, who are inspired to take a new look at gender, and ask questions of their own.

This review originally appeared on beyondescapism.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.