Friday, August 06, 2010

Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula LeGuin's much-acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness was this month's selection for the book review.  Generally, my group enjoyed the book.  Will Johnson was the most enthusiastic.  Left Hand is the fourth novel in the Hainish Cyle which consists of six novels.  (I haven't read any of the others.)

I can't say I was all that impressed with this early work of Ms. LeGuin. 

Like any good bookworm teenager, I read the Earthsea Trilogy back in the 70s and I remember finding it puzzling and morose and haunting.  I enjoyed it well enough.  But Left Hand to me, was not a particularly compelling novel, nor did I develop much sympathy for the characters, whom I found to be rather dull.

Left Hand examines several themes, the most obvious of which is gender roles and their effects on society.  On the planet Gethen, humans are gender neutral for all but a few days a month when they assume a gender in a cycle called kemmer.  This cycle is akin to a woman's menses or an animal going into heat.  An individual might be female one month, and male the next.

LeGuin takes a stab at how such a world, where there are no absolute genders, might be different.  For example, the political and sociological structures of Gethen are byzantine and ruthless.  There is murder and violence and treachery, aplenty, but there are no wars.  LeGuin introduces a concept of prestige and social stature called shifgrethor that governs all interactions between people.  I'm not sure I understood it, but I likened it to the Chinese concept of "face."

The story is related via the journals of Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen.  The Ekumen is an interplanetary organization of human-inhabited planets (think Star Trek:  Federation).  The Ekumen has only just discovered Gethen and seeks to establish relations.  Ai becomes embroiled in Gethen's politics and wins an ally in Estraven, the prime minister to the ruling monarch of a country called Karhide.

Ai falls afoul of the various schemes in play around him and he is sent away to a prison camp.  Estraven, by now disgraced and exiled, effects an escape and the two set off across a continent of ice toward redemption.

I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the novel, which involved politics and intrigue.  But I found the last third of the book, the part that dealt with the journey across the ice, to be tedious.  The novel is written from a detached perspective:  we read accounts from the various characters memoirs.  There is no immediacy to the book at all, and that kept me from much caring about the characters.  When one of the main characters was killed toward the end of the story, I was indifferent. 

Ms. LeGuin draws a fascinating sketch of a universe similar to our own with subtle differences.  And she touches on many intriguing concepts.  From the perspective of a sociological discussion, the book has a lot to offer.

But I just didn't care about the characters.

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