Thursday, 19 April 2012

A real "science fiction classic"

In all genres of fiction, there are a few novels that are (relatively) widely recognised as classics. Science fiction even has several series of "masterworks" that aims to shoehorn all of these into single published runs. As it takes time to sort the "classics" from the "pulp", these runs are often dominated by novels from the middle decades of the 20th century, with the result that rather anachronistic titles often remain in public view despite the years. One thing that I've frequently found when reading through these latter titles is really quite grating sexism, to the extent that I almost expect it now when reading anything published prior to the 1980s. All of which is to lead into asking where this leaves the 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, written by an American woman, Ursula Le Guin, and now labelled a "classic of science fiction".

Set on the glaciated - and appropriately named - planet of Winter, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of the visit of an envoy from Earth to invite Winter's inhabitants to join the wider galactic community of human societies, the Ekumen. As well as its forbidding climate and extreme isolation, Winter is notable because of its herm- aphrodite human population, in which all individuals can alternate gender to either bear children or to father them. Switching between narrative strands from the envoy, Genly Ai, a member of Winter's nobility, Therem Estraven, and recounted folklore tales and Ekumen field reports, the novel describes the transition of Ai's mission from one of cordial diplomacy to a life-or-death adventure. This switch has its origin in Winter's political division into two mirror-opposite states, and the fears of both sets of leaders that contact with the galactic community which Ai's arrival heralds will utterly change the planet's balance of power.

Ai's first host, Karhide, is a feudal monarchy with a suspicious king who, even after two years of contact, still vacillates on the offer of galactic membership communicated by Ai. Fearful of change, the king makes one of Ai's Winter contacts and supporters, Estraven, an enemy of the state, forcing him onto the run. Ai, now concerned for his own safely, travels to Winter's other major society, Orgoreyn, a socialist bureaucracy that, while ostensibly progressive, is actually corrupt and totalitarian. Though warned by Estraven, who has also travelled to Orgoreyn, Ai fails to comprehend the political machinations of his new hosts, and before long finds himself imprisoned in a labour camp. Steadily ground down by the camp's brutal regime, Ai is only saved when Estraven executes a brazen rescue. But their escape places them in immediate danger, and they reluctantly decide to journey to comparative safety over Winter's ice cap, the Gorbin Ice. This stretches the endurance of both humans, and its culmination back in Karhide is both tragic and hopeful. The long journey also sees Estraven enter kemmer, the sexually active state, which casts a new light on the relationship between the pair as Ai sees the female side of Estraven revealed.

Now this really is a proper "classic". Bar one minor aspect - which I'll touch upon later - it really doesn't put a foot wrong. The novel sets up an intriguing premise of first contact with a long-isolated society on a hostile planet. It allows the reader to explore its setting via a character who is also seeing and understanding for the first time. Said character is then thrown into a plot full of political intrigue and adventure. And the whole thing is capped off by a brilliant exploration of Winter's not-quite-alien gender balance. This last aspect is probably the novel's strongest point - partly because this is a relatively rare theme in science fiction, but mostly because Le Guin takes it so seriously and treats it so carefully. As the novel progresses, Ai's initial perception of Winter's population as superficially male gradually erodes as he comes to understand the full implications of a hermaphrodite society, both intellectually and emotionally. He also comes to realise that his own unisexualism - and permanent kemmer - is equally alien to Winter's citizens.

But the rest of the novel is uniformly excellent too. From the great field reports made by covert Ekumen observers, through the beautifully described details of life on Winter, to the brilliant bits of invented folklore for the culture, Le Guin really does a superlative job of imagining the planet's society, and making it feel like a living and breathing place. Things do become a little less vibrant during Ai's imprisonment in Orgoreyn, but that's in keeping with his dire situation there. And Le Guin's "two state solution" for Winter is a little too obviously a nod to then-contemporary Cold War politics (did you see what I did there?), but I am saying that with the benefit of considerable hindsight. Overall, while I guess that the slower, introspective pace may not suit readers more in the mood for some laser-and-space-alien action, it's not like there's any real shortage of such novels for those who're interested. This is a much rarer beast, and is all the better for it.

Interestingly, the novel resembles, but largely surpasses, two of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, The Player of Games and Inversions. The former, in particular, has quite a number of parallels with The Left Hand of Darkness including, most significantly, a civilisation in which sexual biology deviates from our own. Banks' novel differs in having a three-sex system instead of hermaphroditism, but it similarly dwells upon the imprint this biology leaves on its society. And the novel's accidental hero, Jernau Gurgeh, undergoes a not dissimilar transformation from guileless envoy to political foil as does Genly Ai here. To be sure, there are plenty of pretty significant differences, and Banks goes on to explore quite different themes, but the parallels are still strong. And as much as I love The Player of Games, it does pale a little in the face of the ambition of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Wearing my geeky Earth scientist hat, another aspect that I really quite liked was the off-handed skill by which Le Guin introduces and explains Winter's climate. Icy science fiction worlds are such a familiar staple that, ordinarily, they never receive - nor seem even to require - a word of explanation. But Le Guin delicately touches on the orbital dynamics of the planet, noting how its seasonality is caused not by planetary obliquity as on the Earth, but by pronounced eccentricity that gives Winter global, rather than hemispheric, seasonality. And there's even space in the novel for some musings on Winter's ongoing ice age, and of its potential transitioning out of it. Neat!

To touch back onto my opening paragraph, it's difficult to believe that The Left Hand of Darkness was actually written before my personal bête noire of "science fiction classics", Ringworld. Though widely granted "classic" status - largely, I guess, because of its eponymous, and inspirational, artifact - this latter novel is a pretty unreconstructed slice of ripe sexism. Sure, it's not the worst example - science fiction is, after all, a rather male-dominated form ... with all which that entails - but it's easily the worst that I've read in recent years, and pretty shockingly so given the reverence in which it seems to be held. In this context, and in spite of confirmatory cases like Ringworld, Le Guin has certainly upset my default prejudice about mid- to late-20th century "classics". Pleasingly so.

Anyhow, overall a great read, eminently worthy of "science fiction classic" status. Though given the aforementioned company that it finds itself keeping with that label, perhaps it needs to distance itself a bit from some of its fellow "classics"!

The "minor aspect" is personal to me, and sufficiently tangential to the novel that it doesn't really detract - even for me. Basically, whenever I read of telepathy, I reach for my gun. It's one of those tropes of science fiction that, when presented as a natural phenomenon of otherwise ordinary humans, just ticks my "annoy" box - repeatedly. It's largely just me being a pedantic biologist - our conscious experiences are such a complex and distributed phenomenon that I simply refuse to accept (even in a novel) as decipherable by similar brains. And don't even get me started on the physical nature of the senses that would be required to peer into - and make sense of - the byzantine electrochemical chaos of organic minds. I'm happy to accept that vastly complex - and appropriately equipped - artificial intelligences could peer into and begin to understand the contents of my skull, but another brain like mine, one that's already processing its owner's experiences, no - get out of here. Anyway, nit-picking rant over.

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