The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
Publisher - Orbit
Price - £7.99 paperback (Out Now)
This outstanding classic of science fiction, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when first published, is the story of Winter, an Earth-like planet with two major differences, conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of the year, and the inhabitants are all of the same sex. Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or life beyond their own world. And when a strange envoy from space brings news of a vast coalition of planets, which they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief.
One of my aims for the blog this year is for me to explore some more of the ‘classic authors’ of SF and Fantasy. I’ve probably always focused on books that come out now and the few times in the past when I have picked up Golden Age novels I’ve been a bit disappointed; it’s always hard when you’ve read the books other authors have since used/or even countered the arguments made within of the originals to get that amazing feeling of something truly original that was felt back when people first opened the covers of a story. I’m also suspicious of the concept of a canon people should read if they’re interested in a subject (I’m a Doctor Who fan and take the view there isn’t only one) but I’ve heard enough people I trust to mention certain books as well as authors its time to have a nosey. On a personal level there are authors I’ve been meaning to try to read for a while and some that while they’re not automatically appealed I’d still like to try just to possibly understand how they’ve got the acclaim other put to them. I was planning to start with something light like the Belgariad this month but the passing of Ursula K Le Guin has made me decide to finally read an author I have heard was a true original in the field. Reader I think it’s fair to say after reading this there will be a lot of catching up to do on her work!
We have a first contact scenario with a vast interstellar group having decided the inhabitants of Winter are ready to be approached as to whether they wish to join the wider neighbourhood. Unlike Star Trek it’s less focused on technology and instead more the nature of the society that has attracted their attention – The people of Winter don’t know they are not alone and haven’t developed flight technology. They also have an unusual concept of past and future which appears to have given them almost supernatural powers of prediction. The Envoy known as Genry arrives when there are two key nations starting to vie for dominance on the planet - Karhide a monarchy and Orgoreyn run by a collective government. Initially Genry has focused on Karhide working with the local Prime Minister Estraven to secure the King’s favour; but the book starts with Estraven just falling out of the King’s favour and Genry quickly finds himself improvising between two governments with the fate of the planet’s future in his and Estraven’s hands.
So, I’ve come into this classic relatively cold and what jumps out at me is it changes genre several times. Initially it looks like a simple tale of a culture clash. The King of Karhide is worried introducing an interstellar alliance will reduce their influence; but the tale develops into a political thriller as Genry decides to move across to Orgoreyn and we see a very different type of country. There while on the surface we see a land focused on ensuring everyone has a job and income we also see political infighting combined with an all powerful secret police, equally people on both sides see this idea of something bigger and more powerful in the stars as a threat to their own ambitions. Its really not hard to see comparisons with the old USA/USSR Cold War and there is some interesting commentary on the power of free speech.
Although Karhide has an all-powerful monarch people there are allowed to discuss the new alien and decide overall if this will be a good thing; whereas in Orgoreyn it becomes apparent that news is tightly controlled and while the Elite is happy to engage with him the wider populace is not even aware the aliens have landed! Mirroring Genry’s treatment we see Estraven fleeing his replacement in Karhide and being welcomed in Orgoreyn as a political refugee. A running theme in the book is the concept of nationalism. Is it natural to be loyal to your homeland or really should we be prepared to look that little bit wider to see us all as one planet? Is our sense of place not protecting us but possibly dooming us as a species?
The relationship between Genry and Estraven is at the heart of the book and it’s fascinating. When we first meet them it’s very much seen as a purely transactional relationship. Genry sees Estraven as using him for political reward and once out of favour feels used and betrayed. The book however cleverly swaps narrators, so we don’t just see Genry’s viewpoint and we soon see that Estraven has his own morality and ethics and in his eyes Genry has been acting over-cautiously and often clearly condemning the behaviour of the aliens he now lives with. I think the book is very successful at is highlighting how cultural assumptions can impact our judgements. Both main characters are shown to be applying their own cultural beliefs to the other. Each character initially assumes the other is behaving to their code of ethics and they eventually realise they’ve misinterpreted the other’s actions. The emotional punches you feel as they realise they have so much in common are subtly done until you really want these two to just have a nice meal in the warmth together!
I’m always fascinated with how people communicate and it’s a timely reminder that if you assume someone from another country will just behave the way you expect them to you may find yourself making major mistakes (always useful these lessons of SF say if you’re negotiating leaving a major political union for example…). I’m not entirely satisfied though with the way the biology of the people of Winter is dealt with. This planet has evolved a hermaphrodite culture; their sexual cycle is largely dormant except for every 26 days. In some ways I think Le Guin raises some fascinating thoughts. Sexual politics and dominance do not exist here everyone is biologically the same and the concept of families is broader and more nuanced. Genry really struggles to grasp these differences and tends to ascribe male/female physical characteristics to various characters and it’s a salutary kesson that sexuality and gender are very wide-ranging. But I think Le Guin is less successful with all inhabitants of Winter called ‘he’ and Genry often ascribes various behaviours as either masculine or feminine. It’s a very 20th century look at behaviour based purely on physical gender and not the concept of a bias in a culture. Genry posits that the world has notably no concept of war until very recently because there were no men to bump heads – an interesting counterpoint with the way the more recently Naomi Alderman’s The Power looked at our concept of gender and power. I was however impressed that we see Genry start to realise that he has followed a distinctly masculine trait of bottling up his feelings and that is partly why he’s made some mistakes as to explain his behaviour being very cautious over how much he tells people about the stars. I’d loved to have seen a little more acknowledgement that culture rather than biology was a deciding factor but I do think the 1969 publication date highlights this was a topic only just getting a wider public gaze.
All the above clearly shows this is a novel exploring ideas but Le Guin has taken some interesting choices and the latter half moves the action from the corridors of power to a desperate race across a polar region with giant volcanoes, freezing temperatures and deadly crevasses to evade. The sense of scale and the weird alien nature of the landscape is beautifully done – you will feel the cold. At the same time by moving Genry and Estraven to a location away from everything else we get to see them must face each other and learn to trust one another while the threat of death/capture injects a sense of tension the book needed now the world has been set up so well. This gives the book quite a lot of energy and you don’t know where exactly Le Guin is taking us until the last few pages. I’m not going to forget though the way a giant volcano erupts into an ice sheet it gives the story a mythic quality. That last part is also useful as interspersed through the main story are various legends from Winter. These short fables give us grasps into a richer culture and explore concepts of loyalty and love that have bigger bearings for the main plot. Again, this re-iterates how the culture of a civilisation also influences its current behaviours.
So, do I think it’s a classic? Yes, I think this is one of the best depictions of a first contact situation I’ve read. It explores the issues of communication and nationalism that feel logically would be hurdles to any relationship between planets. At the same time, it is clearly putting a mirror up to the Cold War of the 20th century and highlighting the dangers the world was then facing….and sadly arguably still face in now slightly different forms – the threat that nationalism makes us keen to see everyone else as an enemy feels as relevant now as then. That amazing developing friendship between Genry and Estraven is also I think a stand-out element and watching how two characters learn about each other and decide to act for a greater good is one of the most powerful explorations of friendship I’ve read in a long time. So yes, I would totally recommend if you too have not read Le Guin to try this book!