Review Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness

Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin

By the time I read Left Hand Of Darkness in the 1990s, science fiction novels addressing issues of gender and sexuality were, if not mainstream, certainly not revolutionary. Not so when Le Guin published this landmark book in 1969. This is the story of Ai, sent to the planet Gethen to convince its citizens to join a confederation of planets. Ai’s mission is by turns stymied and complicated by the fact that Gethen is a populated by ambisexual people for whom Ai’s conceptions of gender and sex make no sense and with whom Ai struggles to connect.

The book is like much of the science fiction that came out during the New Wave era — a social thought experiment. What would happen to religion, political debate, and the home if gender were removed and sex was not a fixed construction. That description could make this book seem like heavy lifting. It isn’t. Le Guin can write, and the book moves through its socio-political theorizing easy as the plot propels Ai from unfamiliar situation to unfamiliar situation. It’s been almost twenty years since I read this, but there are scenes that I still remember vividly. That should tell you something about the power of the book to both force inquiry into gender and sex but also to captivate the reader. If you have any tolerance for the confines of science fiction (we are talking about space flight in the distant future here) than I cannot recommend this one highly enough.



Review: Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin

The first volume in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The story of a world beset by earth quakes and other natural phenomenon, which can be kept at bay (or instigated) by a group of people with the power to control the forces of the earth. Called Orogenes, these people are hated, and feared. But why? Because they’re dangerous? Because they’re different? Because they’re strong? The story of some o these Orogenes and their shifting place in society is the center of this book. Their adventures and misfortunes are what move the plot. This book won a Hugo this year, and you see why. The writing is light years better than the average fantasy novel.  Jemisin is a gifted writer of real subtly, who introduces her characters, and her world, gradually, and carefully, revealing a bit more here and there to flesh out her heroes, and villains, and the world in which they live.

There’s plot twists and reveals here that in the hands of a lesser author would feel contrived. But Jemisin knows what she’s doing. While I may have uttered a “holy shit” once or twice when a revelation about the nature of the story finally dawned on me, I never felt conned like I sometimes do with books that have this sort of reveal-as-they-go structure. Yeah, this book is “fantasy” and I know that label alone may turn some off. But I suggest you get out of you comfort zone here and give it a try. It’s a great ride.