My third book review! YAY.
Disclaimer: I have never thought of myself as much of an art critic – I sort of always thought it wasn’t my place to disagree with the storyteller. As in, if I didn’t enjoy a book or movie, then it probably says more about me not being the intended audience for it, right? But I don’t think that need stop me from sharing my thoughts on such-and-such a book.
So here I go…
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was popular when it was originally published five decades ago and is still highly recommended.
Personally, I’ve always been fond of Ursula because:
- she built whole new worlds outside western imperialist norms,
- she integrated non-white and non-heterosexual characters into her stories, and
- she created systems of magic and science that were mystical and simple.
She does all of this and yet accomplishes it without forgetting to tell a story.
Thinking of her doing all of this in the 1960s while writing in the genre of SF&F and it seems self-evident how much we readers owe to her for setting higher standards in publishing smart, feminist speculative fiction.
I have enjoyed Ursula’s non-fiction nearly as much as her short-story collections (of which I have read a few), including this book’s prologue where she remarks how all facts are simply well-told lies and thus writers of fiction can write about truth – even if it is untrue.
It was with those ideas in my head that I began reading this novel…
This story is set on a planet that is perpetually in winter-time. Locals call it Gethen but the visitor, Ai (the book’s first point-of-view character), refers to it simply as Winter.
And on this small planet of Gethen/Winter, there are two societies (called Karhide and Orgoreyn), who are being invited to join a larger inter-planetary alliance called Ekumen.
Ai is representing the Ekumen as a messenger envoy, trying to convince locals how it is a good idea to join up with this previously unheard-of organization way out in space.
Not only do I geek out over a wider interconnected universe that Ursula shows off in other stories featuring more exploits of the Ekumen (in what’s referred to as the Hainish Cycle), but I admired how the Ekumen anticipate how time-dilation in space travel (100 years on Planet X would only be experienced as 10 years on a spaceship going from Planet Y to X) allows them to simply wait out any resistance from governments on a planet. So if the current King of Karhide is against joining the Ekumen, then just wait 10 years to see if a century’s time in Karhide changes opinion!
Besides that, I really loved the world of Winter. Maybe it’s because I love our own Arctic here on Earth with its blizzards, icebergs and tundras, but I was pleased to read about a fantasy setting that was not another summertime in Medieval Europe fantasy cliche.
Neither does Gethen/Winter seem like a culturally appropriated/misinformed/parody of Inuit or other arctic-dwelling indigenous peoples (another nasty fantasy cliche).
And like all good world-building, Ursula goes beyond simply saying it’s cold and instead shows how culture would adapt to this circumstance in clothing, attitudes and food.
More hot-and-sour beer, anyone?
The story is about people who live on Gethen/Winter and how the narrator Ai, from Earth but a literal alien on their planet, struggles to relate to them. For one, locals use a term called ‘shifgrethor’, which guides social-political behaviour through vague unspoken etiquette, and is a big cause for Ai becoming lost in translation throughout the story.
For another, locals are biologically intersex (referred to here as ‘somer’) for most of the year and undergo annual periods of sexual fertility (known as ‘kemmer’) where they can potentially become pregnant as a mother or impregnate another as a father. It is even more interesting to read how Ai, a Black dude by Earth standards, is regarded by locals as a pervert because he is perpetually sexually available. Likewise, for the narrator and us the reader, the category labels we tend to ask first about people (gender and sexuality) is absolutely irrelevant to their whole worldview – which becomes even more apparent to see how politics on Gethen/Winter is genderless because sex is fluid and temporary.
Ursula seems to really appreciate this culture she wrote into existence. Naturally, if people were raised in a world of socialized androgyny, where everyone’s orientation was some version of ambisexual, then the spectrum of identity politics would be less about fitting into labels and boxes (like us on Earth) and more about our individual potential to become so many different versions of ourself.
Magic Technology Building
The story has a bunch of passing references to various fantastical magic and science-fiction technologies, but I enjoy how Ursula avoids over-reliance on any of it to advance the story nor to resolve the conflict by its end.
The magical includes a religious people who practice at Foretelling, as in, correctly answering questions about the future (providing you phrase your question correctly!), as well as a very useful power called ‘dothe’ which gives you incredible strength and endurance for a short period of time.
The science includes hyper-food cubes to cram hearty meals into dehydrated blocks as well as Ursula’s most famous invention of the ansible which is capable of instant communication across space.
Not only useful for the plot – to send and receive messages from a corresponding device without delay – but it is a fascinating concept to imagine for our future.
Where once telephone calls across oceans were far-fetched and face-timing family using satellites was preposterous, maybe one-day people could communicate on separate worlds – people who would never cross the vast distance of space in-between them because their span of life is too short.
As I said at the top, Ursula does well to incorporate all the best tropes of SF&F while still telling a damn good story. And for her style, not unlike fellow author Andre Norton, she tends to accomplish this feat without using big battles and laser gun shootouts. Yes, characters die and wars occur, but her style of storytelling doesn’t glamorize any of it or romanticize the true costs of such conflict.
Which is probably why this book does so well at unpacking and reflecting Earth politics. The narrator Ai arrives on Gethen/Winter just as both societies of Karhide and Orgoreyn are transitioning into nation-states – which incidentally fuels their rivalry and disputes over border territories. Karhide is much akin to a monarchy ruling over tribes of people, whereas Orgoreyn is more of a bureaucratic state with secret-police.
Estraven, the second protagonist/narrator, is one of the few politicians receptive to Ai’s invite to join Ekumen and becomes marked as a traitor because of it. Estraven sees membership with Ekumen as a shortcut for Gethen/Winter to skip past the ideological-stage of nationalism. If you’re unfamiliar with the reputation of nation-state politics, it is attributed to being the largest cause of both World War I and II, as well as fuel for the current trend of Trump MAGA and USA’s record of genocides, slavery, fear of immigrants, nuclear arms hoarding and so many anti-drug wars, anti-communist wars and anti-terror wars around the world.
Estraven has good questions that all of us would do well to ponder over, including:
“What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s upcountry? …
I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks…but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”
And I imagine that was really what Ursula was trying to get at with this story, which I dare say could be summarized with another Estraven quote:
I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism.
I mean fear. The fear of the other.
Thanks for reading what I’m reading.