I feel about reading Science Fiction classics much they way I do playing the piano. I’d love to be able to do it but it never seems worth the effort. In an ideal world I would wake up one morning with the ability to play. Not to concert virtuoso standard, that would be greedy, but enough to wow my sons by banging out some John Williams cinema classics.
Seminal SF works are the same. They’re there, waiting to be read; the greats of field, but often they can be a bit dry, dated. There’s always something more appealing to read. If only knowledge of them could just be instilled somehow. It’s these levels of dedication, ambition and perseverance that explain how I ended up a stay at home dad.
So it’s nice when a kick up the bum comes along and forces (or at least strongly encourages) me to read them. This time the boot came in the form of the Hodderscape Review Project and Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.
It started much the way I expected. Slow, dry and leaving me unsure I understood what was going on. The style is of its of time. Not that I’m really in much of a position to comment, but I suspect that if this book were submitted for publication today it would be rejected. Modern Sci-Fi tends to be more immediate, with bolder characterisation. The narrative here takes second place to theme; the anthropological viewpoint keeps the reader at arms length from the story. Yet this is not a classic of the genre without reason.
Setting aside how groundbreaking it was at the time publication, this slim novel is bursting with observations about gender, relationships, communication and the nature of humanity, that are still relevant today. The androgynous population of the planet Gethen are anathema to off-world visitor Genry Ai and as he struggles to understand them so, as readers, do we. From the alien nature of the people of Gethen, it is possible to deduce the complexities and difficulties facing men and women as they try to understand one other. It’s probably an over-simplification but it’s a powerful observation.
Exploration is another big theme. As Genry Ai travels he has an impact on the places he travels through, but so they too impact him. Why else do we travel but to gain from the experience? The purity of the planet of Winter, it’s perpetual pristine whiteness, offers a blank canvas upon which the souls of its inhabitants are laid bare. The Left Hand of Darkness is, I think, our impurities. The things that make us individuals; humans. We are a ‘shadow on snow’.
This is a slow thoughtful novel, the power of which didn’t really sink in until after I’d finished reading (much the same happened with The Dispossessed). I regretted struggling with the opening chapters and so I immediately reread them. They made more of an impression when placed in the context of the rest of the novel. In many respects I feel supremely under qualified to offer judgement on a seminal work, so I will simply say, I would never have come around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness were it not for the Hodderscape Review Project. It would have been my loss.
Thanks to Anne and the team at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book. And Orbit books for teaming up with them so they could do so.