On a calmer note: I just finished another book by LeGuin, her award winning Left Hand of Darkness.
Man, I am getting worn out by reading all these amazing books back to back. I mean, it feels like I’m writing, “Wow! Kapam! This book is the greatest! Whammo!” every other day. My posts feel like they’re bleeding into each other. Another book, another awesome review. Do I ever go wrong? Will I one day read a sucky book I get to blast with righteous vindication? Maybe. Till then, I’ll keep writing Whammo!
So: The Left Hand of Darkness. LeGuin goes for the throat on this one. In The Word for World is Forest she was sort of playing, having fun, being lyrical at times and deeply, darkly sardonic and bitter at others. You could tell she was having too much fun channeling Davidson, and that she wrote that book quickly and without too much strain. (Ok, that’s how -I’m- perceiving it. An easy expression of brilliance, or something.)
But TLHoD is something more. I mean, she’s even got a couple of pages in the back of the book explaining Winter’s calender system. You know your author is getting serious when they break down the month and explain why each day gets it’s own funny name.
TLHoD is set within the same universe as The Word For World is Forest, with humans visiting a planet inhabited by human descendants that were seeded there ages ago and have evolved differently from that which we are accustomed to seeing in the mirror when we’re shaving bleary eyed before going to work. This time, however, instead of a callous bunch of brutal, enslaving assholes (with a couple of nice deviations), we have a sensitive, proud, daring man called Genly Ai who’s making ambassadorial first contact and trying to convince the Gethians (the natives) to join the Eukumen (the intergalactic brother/sisterhood of man/woman).
He does not have an easy time of it.
Through the Gethians, LeGuin explores sexuality, holding up a mirror for us to see our own drives and urges. The Gethians, see, are androgynous for most of the month, and then develop sexual feelings for a couple of days, have fun, and go back to being androgynous. Poor Genly Ai is seen as being a pervert, since his penis never goes away, and is greatly pitied and misunderstood as a result.
Now, this might sound like the perfect territory for Monty Pythonesque high comedy, but in LeGuin’s hands it’s instead a subtle, nuanced, heart wrenching setting for a tale of bravery, sacrifice and empathy. I know for a fact that thousands of college papers have been written on this book, and any attempt of my own to get in depth about the TLHoD will seem superficial, spurious and facile, so I won’t bother. Especially since I’m worn out by my political rant earlier. Suffice to say! LeGuin delivers a knock out punch, or whatever stereotypical line of commendation you go for, and the novel is great. Tony the Tiger Grrrrreat.
If anything is lacking, it’s a great villain to hang your hat on. No Dr. Haber, no Captain Davidson. You have some tricksy Soviet, comrade secret police Hello how’s your mother? stuff going on at one bit, but it’s a system run by insipid fellows, and from who’s ranks no paragon of villainy rises. One could argue that the planet itself is the villain, General Winter marshaling its inhospitable forces to great effect, but that doesn’t really fly. The cold is of course impersonal.
There are lots of cool bits stuck in short chapters that are mere pages long, borrowed from Winter’s lore and history. One small chapter in particular dealing with Estreven’s heritage is particularly touching; a perfect gem set in the center of a glittering crown, priceless in its own right but easily overshadowed by the greater novel. If you read TLHoD, you’ll probably stumble across it and then sit there for a good, long moment, feeling an aching pain in your chest and realizing that yes, your eyes are stinging a little bit, and you feel silly and good at the same time. Then, like me, you’ll rub your face, blink several times, and plunge back into the book, feeling lucky to have picked it up, to have taken an interest in LeGuin, and better yet, how lucky we all are that LeGuin decided to write it in the first place.
Hurrah for LeGuin! Hip hip! Hip hip? Hello?