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Reading Challenge #8 – The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin is an author who grows as you grow. You can read and admire her at thirteen, and you can read and admire her at forty-three. As I have done. Because I think it must be around thirty years since I last read The Left Hand of Darkness. I’d never really felt the need to reread it because I knew the story. It’s one of those novels whose plot and characters have entered science fiction common knowledge – we all know about it even if we’ve not read it.

Which is a shame. Because it’s definitely worth reading, and certainly stands up to rereading.

The book is set in Le Guin’s Ekumen, a loose mystical/economic interstellar polity of eighty-odd human planets with the world of Hain at its centre. Earth was seeded by the Hainish. The Left Hand of Darkness is set on Gethen, also known as Winter, which has just been invited to join.

The Gethenians have no space travel and, strangely – and uniquely among the humans of the Ekumen – they are hermaphrodites. For three weeks of every month they are effectively neuter, but for a week they are in heat, or “kemmer”. And the gender they take during kemmer depends entirely on those around them.

The Left Hand of Darkness is essentially a character study of a Gethenian called Estraven. He is the royal contact of Genly Ai, the Ekumen’s lone Envoy to the world. And it is through Ai’s, er, eyes that we come to know Estraven and, by extension, the people of Gethen. The novel is essentially world-building, and it’s a fascinating society Le Guin has created – a result of both the Gethenians’ sexuality and the planet’s harsh near-Arctic climate.

The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness is considerably less complex than the world itself. Estraven falls from favour and is banished from Karhide. The king’s new adviser is not interested in joining the Ekumen, only in provoking a war with the neighbouring police state of Orgoreyn. Ai visits Orgoreyn, hoping to have more luck with its “commensals”. He meets the exiled Estraven, who warns him that no one is interested in the Ekumen, only in using the Envoy to improve their own political fortunes. When those machinations fail, Ai is arrested and shipped off to a “Voluntary Farm”, where he is continually drugged and interrogated. There is an ongoing discussion amongst the Gethenians regarding Ai’s true nature – is he what he claims to be, or just the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax? This is purely Gethenian speculation; for the reader, Ai’s nature is never in doubt.

Estraven rescues Ai from the farm, and the two trek across the northern ice shield to return to Karhide. Since the commensals had claimed Ai had died of a virulent fever, his miraculous return should be enough to provoke the king of Karhide into inviting the Ekumen ambassadors to Gethen.

The story is told by Ai, who begins the novel with the line:

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Ai’s narrative is interspersed with excerpts from the journal of Estraven. And between the two they cover the entire period between Estraven’s exile from Karhide and the landing of the ship containing the Ekumen ambassadors. The focus remains firmly on the two narrators.

Since the Gethenians are neuter for 75% of the time, and can be either gender when in kemmer, their society is essentially single-gendered. So The Left Hand of Darkness is as much a book about gender-roles as it is an exploration of an alien Other. And, while it was first published in 1969, perhaps in order to better contrast Gethenian society with the reader’s, Le Guin seems every now and again to drop into gender stereotypes – especially for women, since Ai is male and Estraven is neither. But that’s a minor quibble.

The Left Hand of Darkness is Gethen. And Gethen is one of the best-realised worlds in science fiction. I’d last read this book years ago, but had since then reread The Dispossessed… and decided the latter was the better of the two. But having now read The Left Hand of Darkness once again, I find I’m not sure. There’s no doubt they’re the best two of Le Guin’s Hainish novels – which makes them amongst the best the genre has produced – but I suspect I’ll never decide which is best and which is second-best.

Unlike the other books I’ve reread for this year’s challenge, The Left Hand of Darkness did not disappoint. In fact, it did the opposite – I like it even more than I thought I did. I will definitely be reading it again one day. I might even add it to the bottom of my favourite novels list…


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Some Fantasies From A Fan of SF

The New Yorker published a list of seven essential fantasy reads, which were pretty much the usual genre heartland suspects. Mark Charan Newton provided his alternatives here, and Larry has done likewise on the OF Blog of the Fallen here. Both Mark and Larry are bigger fans of fantasy than I am – Mark, of course, writes it: his novel Nights of Villjamur has received much good press recently.

However, I have on occasion read the odd fantasy book. Some of them I liked a great deal more than others (yes, I’ve tried most of the big series). So here is my seven damn fine fantasy reads:

The Ægypt Cycle, John Crowley, comprising The Solitudes (originally published as Ægypt), Love & Sleep, Dæmonomania and Endless Things. This is one of the great works of fantastical literature, if not one of the great works of late twentieth century American literature. It is required reading.

A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park. Given Park’s previous works, that he then chose to write a secondary world fantasy with a female teenager as the protagonist was a surprise. But as this series progressed – through The Tourmaline, The White Tyger and The Hidden World – then what he was doing became far more typical of his oeuvre. This is a complex, beautifully written fantasy series, with, in Baroness Ceaucescu, one of the genre’s great villains.

The Lens of the World series, RA MacAvoy, is a trilogy – Lens of the World, King of the Dead and Winter of the Wolf – and they’re uncharacteristically thin books for fantasy. In other respects, it more closely resembles the typical secondary world / high fantasy… although not really. I’m surprised these books aren’t better known, they’re one of the best fantasy trilogies I’ve read. They’re out of print but definitely worth seeking out.

The Dragon Griaule, Lucius Shepard, is a series of novellas and short fiction, begun with ‘The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule’ published in F&SF in 1984. This was followed by The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, and Liar’s House… and The Taborin Scale is due from Subterranean Press later this year.

Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke, is not a well-known novel but it deserves to be. It’s a secondary world fantasy, but it’s not set in a cod mediaeval world. If anything, the setting is closest to Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War. But with magic. Except the magic is dying out.

Viriconium, M John Harrison, is a series of stories and novels set in and around the eponymous city. The stories have been variously collected in Viriconium Nights and at least two books titled Viriconium; the novels are The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium. These stories are an antidote to secondary world fantasies which, naturally, begin by appearing to be secondary world fantasies themselves.

The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, Ricardo Pinto, is the series title of three huge volumes – The Chosen, The Standing Dead and The Third God. This is world-building as an artform, with one of the most original secondary worlds I’ve ever come across – this again is no cod mediaeval England. The story which takes place there is equally ambitious and equally well put together.

honourable mentions
The Dragon Waiting, John M Ford, was in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series. Unlike the other novels mentioned in this list, The Dragon Waiting is more of an alternate history set in fifteenth century England. But with vampires.

Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley, is one of those books which reads entirely as secondary world fantasy, but has an appendix which makes you question its genre credentials. It was followed by The Ordinary and The Last Green Tree which are overtly science-fictional.

Shadowkings, Michael Cobley, is the first in a trilogy followed by Shadowgod and Shadowmasque. This is grim dark stuff, possibly because Cobley is Scottish.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick, like the Ford above was in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series. Swanwick has recently had a new novel in the same world published, The Dragons of Babel.


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Reading & Watching – Aug 2009

More reading and watching over the past few weeks…

Books
The Affinity Trap, Martin Sketchley (2004), is solid twenty-first century British space opera: take some Banks, mix vigorously with Reynolds, add a pinch of Morgan, a soupçon of McAuley and garnish with a sprinkle of Warhammer 40K. Which is not to say that the end result is not done well. If my TBR weren’t already approaching Olympian heights, I’d be tempted to pick up books two and three in the trilogy begun by this novel.

Guardians Of The Galaxy: War Of Kings Book 1, Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning (2009), is the further adventures of the “re-booted” Guardians of the Galaxy sfnal superhero team from Marvel. The plot thickens, the dialogue continues to entertain, and the art is (mostly) high quality. I’ll admit I don’t understand why Marvel change artists from episode to episode on these mini-series things. I’d have thought consistency would be best. But perhaps they have to spread the work around to hit the planned publication date.

Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin (1973), I reviewed for my Apollo 40 celebration on my Space Books blog here.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, Michael Collins (1974), I reviewed for my Apollo 40 celebration on my Space Books blog here.

First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, James R Hansen (2005), I reviewed for my Apollo 40 celebration on my Space Books blog here.

A Fair Day’s Work, Nicholas Monsarrat (1964), is a potboiler which paints its characters with a little too broad a brush to be entirely plausible. It’s set aboard a liner on the eve of departure from Liverpool. Except the new “breed” of stewards – the first post-war generation, in other words – are lazy goodfornothing union layabouts, and they keep on staging strikes to delay the ship. It’s up to the captain – the best-drawn character in the book – to sort it out. Which he does.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), I read on the train travelling up to Glasgow for Satellite 2. It was not the book I’d expected it to be. Set in an alternate recent past, it posited a UK in which clones exist as an underclass to provide replacement organs. They’re treated worse than slaves. Except for those at Hailsham, a boarding school where they were given special treatment. I suspect Ishiguro has never attended boarding-school. And a stylistic tic, in which the narrator mentions some event or past incident, and then breaks from the main plot to to describe it, became increasingly irritating as the novel progressed. But it was nice to read a science fiction novel with real characters and lovely prose, even if it was a very thin on ideas. Why can’t we have sf novels with all three, eh?

Atomised, Michel Houellebecq (1999), I read on the train travelling down from Glasgow after Satellite 2. An odd book, and I’m not entirely sure how successful it was. It’s certainly bleak, and the didactic tone of the early part of the novel made for an interesting read. But when one character started telling their life story to another character for no good reason, my sense of disbelief began to falter… and when I got to the final section in which a narrator describes Michel’s work following the years described in the rest of the novel, well, at that point my suspension of disbelief just gave up the ghost and expired. I like the idea of a postscript which changes all that has gone before, but you have to do the necessary preparation for it. Atomised didn’t. I’d still like to read more by Houellebecq, however.

Open Your Eyes, Paul Jessup (2009), describes itself as a “surreal space opera”, but I was reminded more of Delany’s early works than anything else – especially Nova, Babel-17 and ‘The Star Pit’. This is not a bad thing; they are fine antecedents. The universe of this novella was weirdly original, the writing worked more often than it failed, and the ideas may not have been entirely original but were given interesting spins. Unfortunately, the characters were a little flat. Nevertheless, a good novella, and I think it’d make a more interesting nomination for an award next year than most of those which end up on shortlists.

The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan (2008), is a book which promised so much before its arrival, but seems to have slowly faded from sight in the year since its publication. Morgan Does Fantasy. You can understand why this made many salivate – high fantasy as a genre is turning moribund, and after Black Man I can’t think of another writer better suited to inject some fresh vigour. But. Morgan made some interesting choices for his novel – his protagonist, Ringil Eskiath, is an out homosexual, in a world in which such a sexual orientation is a sin and illegal; his world is high fantasy, but hints at an underlying science-fictional nature; he begins his story with his “hardy band of adventurers” (so to speak) leading separate lives, so it takes a while to get them together for the climax…. Morgan wields his genre clichés as though they were morning stars, dirty great maces with heads covered in lethal spikes – blunt trauma and puncture wounds. It all makes for a high fantasy novel which struggles to escape the straitjacket of its genre trappings and succeeds only in rolling about loudly on the floor. All the same, The Steel Remains is a superior example of its type, and I’m a little disappointed its brightness seems to have waned over the past twelve months.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde (2001), was a book of which I had high hopes. I was told it was funny, and I do like literary metafictional tricks – even populist stuff like Lost In Austen (but not, I have to admit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). So The Eyre Affair promised much… but delivered very little. It’s a first novel, and it shows. Fforde breaks out of PoV all over the place, telling the reader stuff his narrator could not know; he can’t decide whether to focus on his alternate world with its 130-year-long Crimean War and high literature pop culture, or on the “Prose Portal” which allows characters to visit the world’s books; and there were a couple of places where the logic of the story broke down. Oh, and the puns were bad too. It didn’t help that I read a US edition, so the shoehorned-in references to US cultures, such as car models, just seemed really odd. I’ll not be bothering with the rest of the series….

Films
Taxi Driver, dir. Martin Scorsese (1976). I consider Scorsese the second most over-rated director after Tim Burton. His first few films weren’t bad, although they were pretty much the same movie with the same cast playing different parts. Once he stopped making his wiseguy picture, he started churning out Hollywood “product”. Taxi Driver is about the best of Scorsese’s early works, and if you have to watch one film by him then, yes, I’d say it was this one.

The Sheltering Sky, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci (1990), I didn’t expect to like very much. It was slow to start, and the characters were really unlikable. But then scenery began to take over the film… and for the second half I was hooked. Now I want to read the book.

Knowing, dir. Alex Proyas (2008), was reviewed for videovista.net. See here.

Fata Morgana (1971), Heart Of Glass (1976), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and Stroszek (1977), dir. Werner Herzog, are four of the five films in the Werner Herzog Box Set, and I was a bit surprised at which I discovered I liked and which ones I didn’t. Fata Morgana sounded as though it would appeal – it has no plot, and consists solely of footage shot in Africa while a voice reads out creation myths, strange observations, song lyrics, etc. Despite the arresting photography, it proved uninvolving. It probably needs a second attempt at watching it. Heart Of Glass is notable chiefly because the entire cast acted their parts while under hypnosis. It’s… odd. Not the story, but the way the cast behave. Not a very successful experiment, I suspect. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser was held together by Bruno S’s bizarre performance. It’s a more traditional film than the previous two, but for Bruno S and his odd declamatory method of acting. It’s certainly easy to understand why Herzog was so taken with him that he went on to write Stroszek specially for him. And that last film proved the most watchable and involving of the four. Bruno S is released from prison, is bullied by his prostitute girlfriend’s pimps, and leaves with her for the US. In deepest, darkest Wisconsin, he struggles to survive as the American Dream drowns him in debt. Bruno S is still odd, and his peculiar acting style gives Stroszek a near-documentary feel which works in its favour. Easily the best of the four.

Lions For Lambs, dir. Robert Redford (2007), is one of those movies Hollywood releases at intervals as a sort of “sorry for being so venal and mercenary” note. It attacks Bush’s Administration with all the impact of a wet haddock across the face, is as wishy-washy in its criticisms as Bush’s government was in its justifications, and is basically little more than muddled moralising from a high ground no more than one step up from its target. Hollywood should stick to brainless action movies.

Time Regained, dir. Raoul Ruiz (1999), is, I think, the only cinematic adaptation ever made of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. And even then it’s not especially faithful to the books; although, I suspect, it is in spirit. I have the novels on my bookshelves, but I’ve yet to read them. The film is surreal in parts, and a relatively straightforward historical movie in others. Definitely a film which bears rewatching. It’d be interesting to see it again after I’ve finally got round to reading the books.

The Quiet Man, dir. John Ford (1952), is a film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100, and I have absolutely no idea why. John Wayne returns to the Irish village where he was born, and woos fiery spinster Maureen O’Hara. The village is populated by stage Oirish stereotypes, Wayne happily beats O’Hara when she refuses to do his bidding – a female villager even offers him a stick as a weapon! – and even the film’s colour palette seems better suited to Oz than Eire. Most blarney is more plausible than this old-fashioned, offensive rubbish.

Pierrot Le Fou, dir. Jean-Luc Godard (1965). The version I watched was dubbed rather than subtitled, and it’s amazing how much more pretentious Nouvelle Vague films seem when the dialogue is in English. You can more or less forgive the pretentious bollocks most of the characters speak when you’re reading a subtitle or puzzling out the spoken French. But when drawled in American English, it sounds like the sort of stuff that makes you doubt the sanity of the speaker. Mind you, I’m not a big fan of the Nouvelle Vague – I quite like Alphaville, but not those of Godard’s other films I’ve seen; I love Fahrenheit 451, but have not enjoyed any of Truffaut’s other movies; and Last Year In Marienbad is tosh. Give me Tarkovsky any day of the week.

10,000 BC, dir. Roland Emmerlich (2008), is the latest film by a director who seems to have carved out a career making films which present in believable detail worlds which are complete and utter tosh. In this one, slavers on horses attack the village of a tribe of mammoth hunters, and cart off several. The film’s hero, a Hollywood Cro-Magnon with good teeth and male model looks, follows them to effect a rescue. This means crossing a huge mountain range, stumbling into the territory of a Nilotic race, trekking through a jungle and then through a desert, to reach… the pyramids of Egypt. Er, hang on. Caucasian Cro-Magnon travels south to the Nile via a jungle, the African plains and a desert? Not to mention all the fauna he meets, most of which went extinct a million years before 10,000 BC. And the stupid put-on accents didn’t help, either. Gah.

eXistenZ, David Cronenberg (1999), is a film which has sort of passed its sell-by date. Perhaps there were people out there ten years ago who would have found the nested virtual realities of eXistenZ‘s story confusingly impressive. But it’s old hat now, and the “are we still in the game or not?” mind tricks of the film are ho-hum and predictable. But, this is a Cronenberg film, so there’s a patina of strangeness which sort of makes the movie less dated than it should be. Jude Law’s bad America accent throughout is a bit annoying, though.

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