Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

Continue reading “Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin”

Top Ten Writers

As was noted back at the start of the week, and by a good number of people casting their votes in the poll, the popularity of series in the sf field can make it hard to single out individual books. Moreover, many writers are prolific — if someone’s written one outstanding novel in a decade, they may have an advantage, in this sort of poll, over someone who’s written three. So here’s another way of looking at the data, counting up the top ten writers who were nominated for multiple books, ordered by total nominations received.

1. Gwyneth Jones

Not a surprise, given her three appearances this week. But two other books were also nominated: Castles Made of Sand, the follow-up to Bold as Love, and Siberia, one of Jones’ YA novels (published as by Ann Halam).

2. Justina Robson

Natural History did well, of course, but plenty of people also nominated Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Mappa Mundi and Keeping it Real.

3. Tricia Sullivan

As noted in this morning’s post, in addition to Maul, nominations were sent in for every other novel she’s published this decade — Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn.

4. Elizabeth Bear

The first writer to appear on this list who hasn’t appeared in the main top ten, Bear received nominations for Hammered (often as a proxy for the whole Jenny Casey trilogy), standalones Carnival and Undertow, for Dust, and for By the Mountain Bound.

5. Elizabeth Moon

In addition to Speed of Dark, Moon picked up nominations for Trading in Danger and Moving Target.

6. Jo Walton

Farthing‘s placement low in the top ten certainly doesn’t reflect the strength of support Walton received, with many nominations for the second Small Change novel, Ha’Penny, and for Lifelode.

7. Liz Williams

Like Bear, Williams hasn’t made it into the main top ten; but she achieves the distinction of having more novels nominated than any other writer, six in total:Ghost Sister, The Poison Master, Empire of Bones, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls, and Darkland.

8. Karen Traviss

In addition to the nominations for City of Pearl, Traviss picked up a few nods for her tie-in work — Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, and Star Wars novels Hard Contact, 501st, and Order 66.

9. Ursula K Le Guin

Lavinia accounted for the bulk of Le Guin’s nominations, but a few enthused about the Western Shore novels, in particular Gifts and Voices.

10. Connie Willis

And finally, Willis picked up nominations for both Blackout/All Clear, and for Passage — both not that far off the top ten.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #8

Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (2008)

Lavinia cover

Le Guin’s revisioning of the later parts of Virgil’s Aeneid from the point of view of Aeneas’ wife was widely hailed as a masterpiece; within the genre, it picked up a Locus Award for best fantasy novel, made the Tiptree Award honor list, and was nominated for the Mythopoeic and BSFA Awards. Adam Roberts was as effusive as anyone:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s beautiful, haunting new novel, due out in the UK in May 2009, has already been published in America. Accordingly, the bound proof I read came pre-endorsed for the Britreader: “a winning combination of history and mythology featuring an unlikely heroine imaginatively plucked from literary obscurity” (Booklist). That rather undersells it, actually. “Deserves to be ranked with Robert Graves’s I Claudius” (Publishers Weekly). That’s more like it. Although Le Guin’s pre-Roman first person narrative has a very different flavour to Graves’s Imperial Roman first person narrative, they are of a similar stature: classics in essence as well as theme. “Arguably her best novel” (Kirkus). Arguably so. Certainly I enjoyed this novel more than any Le Guin since the 1970s; and that (it’s almost tautological to add this) means that I enjoyed it more than pretty much any novel since the 1970s. It possesses a depth, clarity and wonder greater than most of the fiction being published nowadays.

Other reviews: Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian, Tobias Hill in The Observer, Cecelia Holland in Locus, John Garth in The Telegraph. See also a four-part discussion of Lavinia started here last year, and continued here, here, and here, with follow-ups here and here.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

2009 BSFA Awards Shortlists

Best Novel

Ark cover Lavinia cover
The City & The City cover Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Best Short Fiction
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 220)
The Push by Dave Hutchinson (Newcon Press)
Johnnie and Emmie-Lou Get Married” by Kim Lakin-Smith (Interzone 222)
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (in Cyberabad Days, Gollancz)
The Beloved Time of Their Lives” [pdf link] by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia (in The Beloved of My Beloved, Newcon Press)
The Assistant” by Ian Whates (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3, ed. George Mann)

Best Artwork
Alternate cover art for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (art project), Nitzan Klamer
Emerald” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Cover of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, by Stephan Martinière, jacket design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Cover of Interzone 220, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 224, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 225, Adam Tredowski

Best Non-Fiction
Canary Fever by John Clute (Beccon)
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D
Ethics and Enthusiasm” by Hal Duncan [Note: withdrawn from consideration]
“Mutant Popcorn” by Nick Lowe (Interzone)
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (Middlesex University Press)

Congratulations to all the nominees! Note that there are only four nominees in the Best Novel category, and six nominees in the Best Short Fiction and Best Artwork categories due to ties for fifth place. The Awards will be presented at this year’s Eastercon, Odyssey.

A Discussion About Lavinia

Lavinia coverLavinia US coverA little while ago now, I pointed to Lavinia as being one of the best books I’d read so far this year, and suggesting that (since this year sees its first UK publication) it should end up on the BSFA Award ballot. But I didn’t back up my praise. In part that was because I was rushing out the door to go on holiday, having meant to write slightly more and been caught out by a lack of time; and in part it was because I was aware that this discussion was (very) slowly gestating. Because it ended up being so (very) long, I and the other participants have split it over our respective blogs; so you can, or will shortly be able to, find part two hosted by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle, part three hosted by Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions, and the concluding part hosted by Nic Clarke and Jo Coleman at Eve’s Alexandria. In the meantime, enjoy:

Niall Harrison: There are two reasons, initially, why I wanted to organize a discussion about Lavinia. One is that for all that I enjoyed it, I found myself in a similar position to Adam at the end of his review: “We might ask, in what ways is this book so very good? But the temptation would be to reply: in all the ways. There’s a quality to this fiction that I cannot capture in a review.” I’d like to try to pin down its strengths and weaknesses a bit more. But the other reason, and the main one if I’m honest, is that I’m very conscious that I’m a long way from being the book’s ideal reader.

Once you get beyond a general, holistic picture of the book, there are at least two obvious ways of approaching it — as an Ursula Le Guin novel, or as a response to the Aeneid — that are closed to me, in that I haven’t read much Le Guin, and I haven’t read Virgil. What’s left, I find, is to approach Lavinia as a fantasy novel; but I can’t help feeling that I’m not responding to the heart of the book. How about the rest of you?

Adam Roberts: I’m curious where everybody else stands on this, because of course it will have a bearing on how we react to Lavinia.

So: Le Guin is one of the three most important SFF writers in my own relationship with genre. I’ve read everything she has written, some of it many times; and if I haven’t liked some of her more recent things (like the later Earthsea books or the rather stiff and, to me, unconvincing The Telling) this may have meant that I’ve fallen rather more hungrily on Lavinia precisely as a return to form.

So: Vergil. My university education was English/Classics (I did a PhD on Browning and the Classics), and I’ve been pretty familiar with the Aeneid for a long time: I have, for instance, taught it to undergraduates. Knowing it as well as I do meant that my reading of Le Guin’s version was shadowed throughout by my sense of the original. Without that, I do wonder what I’d have made of it.

(Of course, been pretty familiar with the Aeneid was so completely the norm, for so many centuries, that it wouldn’t have been worth boasting about. People of all classes across Europe used to treat Vergil’s poem as almost a sacred text: it was second only to the Bible for bibliomancy. See Wikipedia on the Sortes Virgilianae.)

Jo Coleman: I fall somewhere in the middle, as I’ve read (and loved) some of Le Guin, and bits of the Aeneid were wonderfully engraved into my mind at school but never got back to reading it fully. I’m quite interested to see that I may be the least enthusiastic of us. I certainly enjoyed it, particularly in parts, but I wouldn’t rave over it in the way that I would over some of Earthsea, for example.

Nic Clarke: Le Guin: I’ve read quite a few of the novels — beginning with Earthsea, which was recommended to me by a school librarian when I was 13 or 14 — and three of her short fiction collections. I’ve always felt more at home with Le Guin than with most SF writers — I should probably note here that my genre preferences generally lie with fantasy, and always have — because the SFnal possibilities she’s interested in are the ones that interest me: different social and cultural configurations, and how the individual interacts with them. Social science rather than hard science.

Virgil: I studied the Aeneid in A-Level Classics, and again as part of a Classics module I took as an undergrad. I adored it — definitely one of those texts that just gets more fascinating the closer you look at! — although for whatever reason I’ve never got round to reading either the Georgics or the Eclogues. Reading Lavinia gave me a whole new appreciation for just how good my A-Level teaching was — I was astonished by how much of the poem I remembered, given that it will be ten years this summer since I took that exam.

Abigail Nussbaum: I think that within this group, my credentials are the least impressive. Like Niall, I haven’t read the Aeneid, but having grown up and been educated in a non-English speaking country I feel that I’m perhaps even farther away from it than he is, since my education placed a lesser emphasis on Western literature and its founding texts than it did on Hebrew literature (plus, having been in a math and science track in high school, I took only the very basic literature classes). On the Le Guin front, Lavinia is only the second of her novels that I’ve managed to finish (the other is A Wizard of Earthsea, though I’ve never felt compelled to seek out its sequels). I bounced hard off Always Coming Home and The Left Hand of Darkness, though the latter, I think, has to do with having been too young when I picked it up, and I have enjoyed some of her short stories. I’ve been aware for a while that this a major gap in my reading, and Lavinia seemed like a good place to start a second attempt at Le Guin because of its excellent reception (Adam’s SH review was a major factor in my deciding to give the book a try) and because it seemed like a fairly simple, straightforward concept which I would either love or at least be able to get through quickly and easily.

In the end, my response is somewhere between these two extremes. I enjoyed reading Lavinia very much — it’s beautifully written and an almost effortless read, which I was able to appreciate all the more because I came to it right after finishing a rather poorly written novel. But appreciating and enjoying the experience of reading a novel aren’t quite the same as loving it, and I can’t put my finger on one thing that Lavinia does or is trying to do that makes it particularly excellent. As Adam says, this is a book that’s easier to praise as a gestalt than it is for its parts.

Niall Harrison: So can you pin down which elements of Lavinia you find yourself responding most strongly to — for better or worse?

Jo Coleman: What I enjoyed was Le Guin’s portrayal of early Italian religion. I loved Lavinia’s visit to Albunea, and particularly that scene of the Ambarvalia, which seemed to typify that ability Le Guin has to, as Adam put it, make the magic feel natural. She never makes a big deal about it, and simply makes a quiet, clear assumption that people live according to magic, whether it be “fantasy” magic or magic of pre-Christianity. To me, it’s that quiet, clear assumption that brings the day to day rituals she describes to life, and makes them seem both absolutely normal and wonderful at the same time.

She also deals very lightly with the values of Lavinia’s world — I love the way piety is explained, for example, or fas and nefas, what is the right and what, on the other hand, is against the right. I also agree with Adam, in his review, that Lavinia and Aeneas’ marriage is wonderfully portrayed.

On the other hand, I thought the very existence of Lavinia was uncharacteristically heavy-handed. I’m looking forward to disagreement here, but I didn’t think Lavinia’s meditations on whether she existed or not were necessary. Such metaphysical ponderings seemed to me to clash with the grounded practicality with which Lavinia and her world are brought to life. They didn’t seem part of its values, with its deep piety and respect for ancestors. Admittedly I don’t know much about pre-Roman Italian philosophy, but I’m hesitant as to whether Lavinia would, as Le Guin has painted her, so self-respecting and so pious, be willing to accept without a fuss the fact that she was only a creation of a Poet and therefore exempt from normal life and death, remaining a shadowy fictional ghost.

Which brings me to my second quibble, which is harder to pinpoint — and that is that despite the fact that Le Guin renders beautifully a pre-Roman Italian world, and that the battle scenes are certainly violent and tragic, it all felt to me a bit polished. Perhaps the polish is the quality of epic poetry which finds its way into the novel, or rather which Le Guin borrows, as I think she was certainly clear about exactly how she wanted her novel to be shaped by epic poetry and how she didn’t. But I’m not sure if I entirely believed in Lavinia’s world as a whole. Take the moment when she is telling us about her idyllic childhood exploring the hills with Silvia, who seems a bit like an early Italian Dicken with her tamed foxes and beribboned stag. This, Lavinia’s childhood, “the golden time of the first days when there was no fear in the world”. But is this a rendering of childhood, or a peculiarly idealized rendering of pre-Roman Italy? Is Ascanius’ shooting of the stag meant to symbolize its end? If so, it seems to me that Lavinia’s five years in the wood in her old age, surrounded by a herb garden and willing help and yet known as Mother Wolf because she shows no fear of the wilderness, seem a peculiarly cosy exile.

Le Guin’s writing (or, what I’ve read) is often beautifully calm, often fable like, in its evocation of the relationship between man and nature. But in this instance I think the historical novel and the fable like lullaby of its telling are at odds.

Nic Clarke: I think I read Lavinia primarily as an Aeneid fan, noting what was added, what was left out (several instances where the gods swoop in to save people, Iliad-style, which I guess we’ll discuss later), and what Le Guin did with certain scenes and themes. I also thought she mediated the poem’s transition between Odyssey and Iliad modes very well.

My litmus test, I suppose, is the death of Turnus, which haunted the novel — very properly — even if Le Guin’s, or Lavinia’s, desire to idealise Aeneas perhaps dulls some of its sharper edges. Or at least the sharper edges I think it has. (As in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand, I was struck by the portrayal of Aeneas as the thinking woman’s Classical crumpet. But, again, that’s a topic for later!) Which is, I think, my verdict on the novel as a whole: for the most part, a wonderful reading experience, but there were just a few aspects that seemed to me to lack bite.

I’m with Jo on the portrayal of pre-Roman religion and daily life, and I would broaden it to encompass the novel’s entire sense of place. The world was wonderfully lush and rich; I swear there were places where I could feel the sunshine radiating from the page. It is idealised, there’s no doubt, but I think this fits with the concerns of the poem — Virgil, too, is intensely interested in all things bucolic — and of our narrator.

Niall Harrison: So perhaps I should try to talk a bit more about how and why Lavinia worked for me in as someone who hasn’t read the Aeneid, and also about the world of the book. Certainly, I was apprehensive before I started the book — I’m generally wary of retellings and riffs of this sort, because I often find they can be irritating, and result in works with little identity of their own. You might even say there’s something perverse about sitting down to read a novel when it’s explicitly dependent on an earlier work with which you are unfamiliar, and I couldn’t entirely disagree.

In the first instance, I was won over by the reviews. Actually, wait, in the first instance I was put off by a review, specifically Cecelia Holland’s review in Locus, which stated:

Most of the time, Le Guin is vivifying a seamless, sacred, blessed time which may never have existed but which we all fervently long to believe in: the morning of the world, when the whole of nature was suffused with spirit, and people lived in reverence to it. The details of sacrifice and rite and oracle are lovingly described not for their own sake but because they reveal the deep sense of oneness with the world that supported and uplifted the ancients.

And to which my response was: speak for yourself. Not only do I not believe in any such time, I do not fervently long to believe in it. Had Holland said “Le Guin manages to make us long for a time which may never have existed…” I’d have been fine with it; and, having read the book, I’d say that Le Guin actually does achieve something quite close to that. As Jo and Nic noted, the sense of closeness to nature, of the magic of nature, is full and almost overwhelming at times. There’s a very simple and attractive physicality to the book.

But I didn’t know that originally, and what won me over to the book was Adam’s review, and Gary Wolfe’s, which emphasised precisely the narratorial games that Jo expressed reservations about. I do have some reservations of my own (which in a sense relate to the sense of polish Jo mentions), but I also think it’s a brilliant conceit. Most importantly to me, Lavinia’s self-awareness gives Le Guin an excuse to fill in all the context I felt I was missing in a completely non-annoying way. I really don’t think I can emphasize how impressed I was by that, given how sceptical I usually am of such devices. She won me over entirely.

But I also think Lavinia‘s self-awareness actually helps to create the attractiveness of Lavinia’s world, or perhaps to throw it into relief. Consider a passage like this:

It is only too likely that little Publius Virgilius Maro might have died at six or seven, ashes under a small gravestone in Mantua, before he was ever a poet; and with him would have died the hero’s glory, leaving a mere name among a thousand names of warriors, not even a myth on the Italian shore. We are all contingent. Resentment is foolish and ungenerous, and even anger is inadequate. I am a fleck of light on the surface of the sea, a glint of light from the evening star. I live in awe. If I never lived at all, yet I am a silent wing on the wind, a bodiless voice in the forest of Albunea. I speak, but all I can say is: go, go on. (65-6)

To me, the “We are all contingent” — which comes from Lavinia’s anxiety about her reality — and “I live in awe” — which speaks to the luminous world Le Guin is creating — are inextricably linked. The one reinforces the other. Similarly, I think the intrusion of Virgil allows Le Guin to very carefully control her reader’s response to the events of the book, in terms of what expectations it creates, which parts of the story it emphasizes, and so on — and I think that is one of the tricks that meant I, as someone who hadn’t read Virgil, felt at home in Lavinia.