The Left Hand Of Darkness – Gender Politics

left-hand-of-darkness-design-alex-trochutToday’s post is more of a thought piece than a review, because no one needs another positive review of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. It is one of the best science fiction books ever written, has won a number of awards, and is considered one of the most iconic books ever printed – if you haven’t read it you should. I will say that I have been making my way through a number of iconic sci-fi novels this year, and have had a few that didn’t quite live up to my expectations like Stranger in a Strange Land. However, I am happy to say this was decidedly not the case with The Left Hand of Darkness and it is definitely worth a read.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Darkness is a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series of semi stand alone books that catalog the stories of the lives of ambassadors for the Hainish empire. The Hainish are a consortium of planets who possess methods for instantaneous communication, but not instantaneous travel. This means that planets can talk to each other to trade ideas and technology, but visiting other planets is a colossal effort. For this, and a number of other reasons, when the Hainish discover a new planet they want to bring into the alliance they send a single ambassador to study the planet and convince it to join. Darkness in particular tells the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador to Winter. Winter is a cold and icy planet with a very interesting adaptation from the humans who live there – they can freely switch between male and female genders, but mostly remain androgynously between them.

Darkness tells a wonderful story that is worth reading, but it also contains a large thought experiment on the meaning of gender and our unconscious assumptions about both genders. I will say right off the bat I have not read a better book at helping me discover some of the unconscious biases for both genders I apparently personally hold and clearly need to work on. Before reading this I would have said I didn’t have any bias at all, but Darkness has a way of digging deep and, ironically, letting the light in. The power of Darkness is in its subtlety. The book doesn’t focus on the genderless aspect of the story, instead treating it as almost background information that occasionally gets brought up – usually by the narrator Genly Ai as he reacts to people flipping genders around him. Le Guin instead takes the characters, who have been wiped clean of any gender identity, and put them into situations that have traditional gender roles and identities attached to them. She then pulls apart our expectations about those roles and how it influences how we think of the genders. I know that seems confusing as an abstract so let me give you a concrete example. One of the eye opening things for me was the monarch. Winter has a royal ruler, a king/queen. While there are of course any number of queens, a monarchy is something that I (and I assume others) associate as a traditionally male role. In addition, the monarch is arrogant and stubborn which are two additional things I apparently associate with being male. Using these primers, Le Guin got me to think of Winter’s monarch as a man, but then as I got to know the monarch I found I was uncomfortable and confused when they both revealed themselves to also be nurturing and motherly, in particular when the monarch eventually gets pregnant. Darkness is just clever and subtle in its gender manipulations and it is something I really appreciate about it.

While reading Darkness, my mind often jumped to two recent popular sci-fi novels that both play with gender politics: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I have talked about both before, and like both of them. Both books have clearly taken some of Le Guin’s ideas and taken different directions to explore the reader’s assumptions about gender (I am oversimplifying but Justice is told from the perspective of an AI who can’t tell gender apart and Lightning constantly lies to you about what gender people are). However, I found I liked Darkness’ take on gender most because of the previously mentioned subtly. With the two newer books the gender discussion is at the forefront – always present. The Left Hand of Darkness’ clever use of it as a subconcept hidden in the noise in the story allowed me to have a much higher degree of self discovery than in Justice or Lighting. As such, if you have not read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, I definitely recommend that you do. You might learn something about yourself.

-Andrew

Communication Failure – A More Clear Message

51iumd8kwyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_One of the hidden gems I read last year was a satirical science fiction called Mechanical Failure, by Joe Zieja. It was the story of a disillusioned and incompetent military vet, Rogers, being forced back into service on a warship where everything seems just a little off. The plot follows Rogers attempts to uncover what’s causing the weirdness and results in a larger conspiracy being revealed. The book only loosely relied on its plot, with the meat of the appeal being the book’s humor that had me laughing out loud constantly. So when I got my hands on a early copy of Zieja’s sequel, Communication Failure, I was very curious to see if the series could keep its appeal in a second novel.

I was concerned that the plot, which was neither outstanding nor bad in Mechanical Failure, might drag Communication Failure down. However, the exact opposite was true as Comm sees an enormous increase in plot complexity and world building. I was incredibly impressed with the level of detail that Zieja added to his world in this second novel. Our story picks up with Rogers somehow in charge of a derelict fleet. Comm follows his attempts to learn to be a leader, deal with a foreign fleet attempting to destroy him, and continue to unravel a tapestry worth of conspiratorial threads around him. There was a lot more character development than I was expecting as the book progressed and I found myself very invested in the characters by the end. I found myself groaning aloud as I finished Comm because I am dying to know what happens next.

While Comm vastly increased my investment in the plot, it didn’t lose a single step on the humor front. Communication Failure is just as funny as Mechanical Failure was and I found myself once again laughing like a mad man in public as I read Comm on the subway. What is particularly impressive about Comm is what I would describe as a diversification of humor. Zieja does not just rely on a single joke or type of humor, keeping the books constantly fresh and funny. There is situational and contextual humor, science fiction parody and satire (his take on sci-fi fighter pilots is amazing), wordplay and puns, and terrible unfunny jokes that Zieja repeats until I angrily laughed at them. My favorite example of the last in that list was Zieja’s Thelicosan captain who roundhouse kicks something or someone every two seconds. When she initially made her introduction and started kicking people I loudly thought “well this book is hilarious so far, but I think you missed with that one Zieja”. About 100 pages and 30 kicks later I found myself angrily trying not to laugh, and failing, as she continued to kick her way through existence. As I have been writing this review I have just been sitting at my desk laughing as I think about various scenes, so it is safe to say Communication Failure is one of the funniest books I have read… well since Mechanical Failure.

With vast improvement to the world and characters, and continued top notch humor, Communication Failure is a sequel that surpasses its previous debut. The story now has me hooked and I am dreading the long wait to find out what happens in the next book. With this successful second entry, my hope is that Zieja will keep churning out an endless number of Failures as I don’t think I will ever get tired of reading them.

Rating: Communication Failure – 9.0/10

-Andrew

The Mote in God’s Eye – Vision From The Past

51fdqllebklIn an attempt to be more thorough in my understanding of science fiction, I decided I would look back at some more well-known books that I have yet to read. My Dad recommended Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, and I decided to crack it open and give it a whirl. Unsurprisingly, it is a great representation of old-school science fiction that tends to explore big ideas, rather than being published solely for entertainment. Clearly written with the intent to perform a thought experiment detailing first contact with an alien race, the story services the “what if” scenario presented by the authors. While Niven and Pournelle avoid directly addressing the morality of their answers, their solutions feel natural to the world they created.

As the book opens, humanity is in the midst of its third interstellar empire, and scientists notice an object approaching a star within one of the empire’s outermost systems. Realizing this could be an opportunity to engage with an alien object, naval captain Lord Roderick Blaine is sent to investigate with a team of scientists and anthropologists on the McArthur, the ship he commands. Upon intercepting the object, Blaine and his crew find the dead body of an unknown species occupying the starship. After returning with these findings, the system’s local government sends the naval crew to the Mote, the starship’s system of origin. Their mission is to make contact with whoever may have sent the manned probe, and determine the sender’s intent. Upon arrival to the Mote, the crew of the McArthur encounters a wholly alien species that could present a threat to the future of humanity.

The plot fully begins about one hundred pages into the book upon first living contact with the aliens. The crew of the MacArthur intercepts a ship while on their way to Motie Prime, the presumed home world of the aliens, and the scene that unfolds feels like a stroke of genius. Assuming the pilot of the intercepted ship is an envoy, the humans prepare for an historical moment of meeting its first intelligent species amongst the stars. In the first change in point of view for the book, the readers are let in on the joke that the alien is not an envoy, but an engineer unable to communicate. As the humans try desperately to talk with the alien, they repeatedly fail and grow more perplexed as the encounter continues. The innate grandeur assigned to first contact is completely undercut by the innocent confusion on both sides. Neither side can engage with one another in a scene that plays more like a comedy than a drama.

What follows is a more in-depth introduction between humanity and the peoples of the Mote. Through their interactions with the Motie mediators, the humans find out that the Moties are a species subdivided genetically into different biological roles (engineers, farmers, masters, etc.). This is particularly well-written, as the authors show the work involved when two different species with different vocal patterns slowly learn to talk to each other. In a refreshing chain of events, both sides meet in the middle with great optimism about what they can offer each other. Both sides are open with their intentions, but remain guarded about their vulnerabilities and secrets. However, when the humans discover that the Moties are a more advanced species, most of the humans do not react maliciously. The conflict starts to creep in when Lord Blaine discovers the empire holds the keys for the Moties to travel through the stars.

The patient pacing truly shines at this point, as the characters debate how to proceed throughout their interactions with the Moties. The novel moves quickly enough to keep you interested, but allows for the Moties to become more and more alien as they are fleshed out. The humans are constantly adjusting their intentions as they learn about Motie biology and culture, while the Moties attempt to unveil the secrets of space travel and the act of human sexual reproduction. As the writing shifts to the Motie perspective, the authors make unambiguous observations about humanity’s odd social constructs, such as our attitudes towards discussing sex or the formalities that humans apply to conversations. Normally, I would find this interesting because the engagements are cool to read and it feels like the authors have created a funhouse mirror. However, instead of exploring the bizarre truths behind already strange interstellar interactions, these reflections on humanity felt wooden and almost perfunctory.

Niven and Pournelle truly found the Goldilocks zone while detailing their world, as they limit their descriptions to the utilitarian and do not burden the reader with cosmetics. Their focus on the cultural, political, and scientific aspects of the empire flows seamlessly into the story. The imperial society feels quaint and reserved, with an emphasis on religious ethical code and prominent displays of military force to keep order. Time is used to ground the reader in this universe, setting up the conflict on a civilizational scale. The characters are generally shallow, but fit perfectly into the story. They have important roles to play and are written to service the plot. The main protagonist, Blaine, is a quick-thinking decision maker who uses his crew’s knowledge to efficiently weigh the pros and cons of any situation. The list of supporting characters includes: the plucky pilot, the ethical anthropologist, the high minded optimistic scientist, the scheming profiteer, the rock-faced admiral, and a host of other side characters who fill the gaps. All of them are fleshed out and handed their cue cards through a mixture of dialogue and action that pulls the reader into their lives. The roles hold up for most of the book, but start to wear thin near the final third as Blaine becomes the central focus in the story.

At this point, I started to lose interest. The main conflict drifts increasingly far away as the reader is given glimpses of alien history through Motie internal conversations. Most of the characters also felt stretched to their breaking point, pulled to make sure their role felt used to its fullest extent. The main conflict lingered heavily like Damocles’ sword, but progress towards finding a solution felt artificially stalled. My interest was recaptured with a well-timed action sequence that heightened the immediate tension in the story. While it served as a good way to lead the reader into the final act, the last section itself is a plodding reflection on how humanity deals with “the other”- in this case, a thinly-veiled symbol for Cold War-era communism. The characters’ decisions and attitudes feel heavily influenced by the dangerous duality of U.S. establishment thinking during the post-Cold War years, where “the other” is considered to be both a potential threat and a possible future partner. Even though these attitudes can be partially translated into contemporary thought, the decisions made by the characters feel of their own time. They are reactionary, inflexible and fairly myopic. The novel, while well written and true to the characters and world created, does not question the morality of those decisions, leaving the reader to take them at face value.

Ultimately, The Mote in God’s Eye feels confident in its cohesive portrayal of humanity protecting itself from a future threat. Niven and Pournelle avoid distracting the reader too often with unrelated ideas, and keep a strong focus on the central question. There are clearly some issues, but overall, The Mote In God’s Eye is a clever thought experiment. There is a noticeable attention to detail that is completely in service to story and does not feel contrived. It is especially apparent on the macroscopic scale and applies less so to the personal character arcs. The concluding moments of the story will stick with me for a long time, while the existential absurdity of first contact will be forever burned in my memory. It deserves to be read and serves as a great comparison piece since there is a decent amount to learn from it. I wish I liked the book more, but maybe it is far more tailored to its time than mine.

Rating: The Mote in God’s Eye – 7.0 out of 10.

-Alex

Seven Surrenders – Give In And Read It

30199364One of the benefits of taking a vacation can be a lot of travel time – which in my case means a lot of reading time. I managed to knock out some of my bigger to-reads while I was out, so let’s start with one of the densest books I have read this year, Ada Palmer’s sophomore effort: Seven Surrenders. This dense leviathan of a book is the sequel to Too Like The Lightning, one of the best science fiction novels I have read in a long time. The question is, does the sequel hold up and can Palmer recreate her lightning in a bottle, or make lighting strike in the same place twice, or… ok fine I will stop with the lightning puns.

If you haven’t read Too Like The Lightning, here is a link to a brief discussion of why the book is brilliant. Discovering the plot of both books is definitely a part of the appeal, so I will keep my spoilers to a minimum. Seven Surrenders picks up right where Too Like the Lighting left off. While Lightning was a book written to ask questions, Surrenders is a book made to provide answers. Palmer has said that she designed this quartet more like two sets of two books each. Following this, Seven Surrenders both does a great job wrapping up plots from the first book and setting up the second duo of novels. By the end of Lightning we learn of the existence of a number of dark secrets, plots, and ideas. Thus Seven Surrenders is about what happens when these dark facts that bind their society together comes to light, and about how that society unravels and changes in the light of the truth.

I know some of you read the last paragraph and felt that I actually said almost nothing of substance about the books other than some large words. As I mentioned, it is really hard to talk about the plots of these books because almost everything is a spoiler. However, while I won’t give away any of the plot – I can talk more about why this series continues to rise as one of my top science fiction stories I have ever read. So many books I have read seem to be written by authors on a path of discovery. Sure they have the basic outline of the plot, but they learn and change their narrative as they write it – characters rise and fall in levels of importance or certain parts of the world get more fleshed out as authors realize they want to expand on them as series progress. Palmer feels like she sat down and knew exactly what she was going to write from page one. These books feel meticulously planned out – each word and idea is there for a reason, contributing to the narrative as a whole. Her background in academia definitely shines through her work, as I feel I am reading a really compellingly written paper that is thoroughly entertaining to read.

Part of the additional wonder of these novels is Palmer is a master of arguing for, and against, her ideas. This series poses a number of interesting thought experiments and philosophical ideas. Ada is extremely good at showing you why these thoughts are good and righteous, only to often come back and tear down her own arguments with previously unthought of counter points. It creates a book series where you find yourself thinking and questioning everything constantly. These are not books for a passive reader – you will be an active part of the story every second you are in it. This can be exhausting, but as a result Lightning and Surrenders have generated some of the best discussions I have had in a decade from a book. Palmer’s skill for manipulating the reader through the narrative is on par with some of the best I have read. Her ability to organically shift the way I see and think of various characters with a single paragraph is astounding. I have flip flopped on which characters I am rooting for so many times that I have lost count, and the result is a book that feels real.

“Real” is a confusing concept when talking about works of fiction. In this instance what I really mean is that Palmer has made a world and narrative so immersive and so convincing that it feels closer to a historical text than a story someone wrote. The internal logic of the story is so tight that I find myself angry at characters for the choices they make, not at Palmer for the way she decided to write the story. These are the hallmarks of a master of narrative voice and worldbuilding and they make the victories and tragedies in Surrenders feel personal and emotionally resonant. As a result, the books can be a bit difficult to read. When something horrible happens to a character you like it can be saddening, but some of the awful things that happen in these books felt like they might be in my actual future and they occasionally filled me with despair.

This is a series that you should be reading, and will be talked about as one of the best in a generation in the coming years. The books require work to read, but like with all work you will appreciate and care about the end much more than you do in books where you are swept along with little involvement. Book three of this series, The Will to Battle, comes out this December, and if it stays as good as Seven Surrenders I am sure I will be adding this series to my tier 1 list at the end of the year.

Rating: Seven Surrenders – 9.5/10

-Andrew

On Vacation!

Hi Everyone!

Somehow we managed to have almost our entire staff on vacation this week and the next, so we will not have any new content until two weeks from today on September 19th. I apologize to those of you who like our pieces, but we promise to have a ton of new books read while we travel so that we have some great stuff lined up for you when we get back. Have a great week!

Best,
Andrew and The Quill to Live Team