Thursday 12 November 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness

I love Ursula LeGuin; her Earthsea trilogy made a huge impact on my formative years and there is a brief review of Tehanu on the 'More Reviews' page. I am, however, not much of a sci fi reader and I approached 'The Left Hand of Darkness' with some trepidation. 

The thing I don't like is when authors make up new words and leave you to guess what they mean. And also they create long complex names with unpronounceable consonant combinations, so I have trouble remembering who is who. It took me several chapters to realise that this book is written from two, alternating, points of view: one Genly Ai, the alien, and the other Estraven, the soon to be deposed Prime Minister of Karhide. So the book is not about racing through outer space firing laser weapons, it is about people and politics and gender. I was a little disappointed that she did not find another way of referring to the people who live on 'Winter', implying that 'he' is a gender neutral pronoun, for the reader this did not give a sense that the planet's inhabitants are, most of the time, devoid of gender. I think it would have been better to invent a word instead, so that throughout the reading I would have been constantly reminded that they were not men, but just people.

"When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role depending on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as 'it'. They are not neuters. They are potentials, or integrals. Lacking the Karhiddish 'human pronoun' used for persons in somer, I must say 'he', for the same reasons was we use the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me to continually forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman." (p.76)

The whole issue of how people related to each other, how it affected their society, the nature of their sexual habits, morals and behaviour was touched on several times, but for much of the story it stays in the background and I did not feel that she fully investigated the possibilities of the idea. Mr Ai has come to the planet as an envoy from an interplanetary coalition. Where he landed was partly random but they are the country who gets the first opportunity to be part of this potentially lucrative organisation ... if only he can persuade them he is genuine. The political shenanigans of the two neighbouring countries dominates most of the story as, first Estraven, and then Ai are cast out of Karhide and end up in Orgoreyen. The politicians jostle for position and use the visiting alien as a pawn, one easily discarded when those at the top decide he is a fake. They have this weird politeness system call 'shrifgrethor' that mainly means that nobody actually says what they mean and real trust and friendship are very hard to achieve. So when Estraven comes to rescue Ai from the prison/farm the two of them are still not sure if they are both striving to achieve the same thing. In the unforgiving environment of a planet that is mostly frozen (and everywhere else is pretty chilly) they forge a bond that is beyond their normal experience. For me this was the essence of the book, about the two of them overcoming not just the physical obstacles but the gulf of misunderstanding between two species:

"He looked up and laughed. 'I don't know what to call you.'
'My name is Genly Ai.'
'I know. You use my landname.'
'I don't know what to call you either.'
'Then I'm Ai.  - Who uses their first names?'
'Hearth-brothers, or friends,' he said, and saying it was remote, out of reach, two feet from me in a tent eight feet across. No answer to that. What is more arrogant than honesty? Cooled, I climbed into my fur bag. 'Good night, Ai,' said the alien, and the other alien said, 'Good night, Harth.'
A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend no Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand's touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were not flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.
We slept. I woke once and heard the snow ticking thick and soft on the tent." (p.173-174)

The two of them are tested to the extreme, and come out the other side to a world that is the same when they are so changed:
" 'Fear's very useful. Like darkness; like shadows,' Estraven's smile was an ugly split in a peeling, cracked brown mask, watched with black fur and set with two flecks of black rock. 'It's queer that daylight's not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.'
'Give me your notebook a moment.'
He had just noted down our day's journey and done some calculations of mileage and rations. He pushed the little tablet and carbon-pencil around the Chabe stove to me. On the blank leaf glued to the inner back cover i drew the double curve within the circle, and blackened the yin half of the symbol, then pushed it back to y companion. 'Do you know that sign?'
He looked at it a long time with a strange look, but he said, 'No.'
'It's found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness ... how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.' " (p.217)

It is a very short book that packs in a lot of ideas, and not at all what I was expecting. I am not sure it has converted me to the genre but it was certainly a worthy entry on the 101 books list.

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