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

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The Dispossessed – Capital L Literature

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_In October my book club wrapped up its final month of our 2016 schedule with The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. When the book was originally suggested for the roster, I had no idea what it was, but I had heard only the best things about Ursula K. Le Guin and decided to look into it. The praise I found for this classic science fiction novel was astounding, and it rapidly became one of my front runners in our convoluted voting system for book club books. After winning its way onto the schedule, and having to wait an entire year to read it with the group, I got to read one of the best examples in my memory that some science fiction can be considered Literature.

First, a quick rundown of what the book is for those who don’t know, its basically a huge metaphor for the US and Russia during the cold war. The story follows a brilliant physicist called Shevek during two parts of his life simultaneously, past and present. Shevek lives in a solar system with two inhabited planets, each refusing to communicate with one another. The first planet is Urras, a capitalist planet with multiple states that is an allegory for the US. The second, a communist moon called Anarres that is Russia. Shevek grows up on Anarres and finds the communist mentality stifling, so he decides to break a 100 year cold war/embargo and go to Urras to pursue his science. Shevek’s past timeline chronicles his time on Anarres and his present timeline follows his story on Urras. Both timelines alternate chapters and chronicles his experience with both societies.

The Dispossessed had a feast or famine effect on our book club. People essentially fell into two groups, those who devoured it and could not stop talking about it and those who could not finish the first chapter. Let’s talk about the second group first; the book is dense and requires work. This is not a beach read and requires a lot of work, or active reading, to be done by the reader as they go through the story. Its heavy use of metaphor and minimal concern for captivating plot means it is not really a fun book. It feels more like reading a philosophical dissertation/history book on the cold war than a fictional story. However, for the first aforementioned book club group, it was an intense and one of a kind reading experience.

I myself fell into the first group, and cannot recommend this work of art more. While Le Guin definitely favors one world over another, she only reveals which near the end, and colors it as her opinion more than a fact. All throughout the rest of the book it feels like she fairly breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of both societies while also delving into them and providing insights about their workings that I have never heard before. I am a staunch capitalist in real life, but I found myself considering if there was merit to communism and raptly listening to Le Guin as she showed me other things I should consider about the human condition. Regardless of your stance on either form of government, I think you will find that Le Guin’s points are well thought out, complex, and well argued. The writing is also gorgeous, with elegant prose that does not waste a word. Le Guin manages to somehow be eloquent and minimalist simultaneously in her writing, and I really enjoy her style. The book sparked up an enormous amount of discussion with those who completed it, and it generated what was probably the most rich and expansive conversation we have ever had in our book club. We spent an hour talking about the first chapter alone, and those that read it are still talking about it a week later.

To me, The Dispossessed is a work of art that everyone should try to read. You might really, really not like it, but if you don’t hate it you will love it. I understand now why this book is considered one of the best science fiction novels written, and I believe it firmly demonstrates that science fiction novels can be more than just fun. And on a topical note, if you are feeling burnt out by democracy and capitalism this week (as I know many of us are), why not pick it up and learn some of the merits and weaknesses of good old communism.

Rating: The Dispossessed – 10/10

The Masters Of Prose

When talking about the most talented authors, I hear a lot of fans say it comes down to who has the best prose. While I completely disagree that it is the end-all of importance when judging someone’s books, it is none the less an extremely important aspect of every book. Prose is the vessel in which you tell a story, and requests for recommendations of masterful prose have come pouring in. One of the culprits of this surge in prose love is the talented Patrick Rothfuss, a master wordsmith and one of the current kings of the fantasy world. I get daily requests for authors on par with this giant, so I have decided to make a list of the authors I have read that are prose masters and why. So without further delay, in no particular order, let us begin:

cover_ukPatrick Rothfuss – Let’s start with Rothfuss himself as a introduction. Patrick Rothfuss is almost as much a poet as author, and the fact that his character is also poetically inclined only enhances this fact. Rothfuss’s prose feels both beautiful and accessible, which is what makes it such a powerhouse. He describes scenes in vivid detail, but only focuses on the important and does not waste time on the frivolous. With his honed writing and clever direction Rothfuss piques your curiosity and then paints your imagination without a single word wasted. The combination of both beauty and clarity is what makes him so good.

14497Neil Gaiman – Gaiman’s writing always reminds me of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; serious and dark subjects surrounded in whimsy and mystery. There are few authors with prose as imaginative and fun as Neil with his fanciful descriptions and mysterious and silly conversations. Yet these words still pack a punch, with layers of meaning and philosophy built into every single paragraph. Every single time you reread a work of Gaiman’s you will find some new meaning you didn’t see before and find the words more captivating than you remember. He is a thoughtful writer who has induced endless conversations about the complex meanings of stories.

51tpik8k2btlScott Lynch – Lynch has the one of strongest voices I have ever read. When you read any of his books you become the characters he creates, and live their lives. His books are both hilarious and alive. I don’t have a favorite part of any of his novels because if you were to open to any single page and start reading you would find yourself smiling and laughing. His books read like your best friend making you laugh after a rough break up and continue to bring me comfort whenever I need them. His prose will make its way to your heart and warm it with his lovable rogues and perfect humor. I have only found one or two books even close to as dripping with humor as Lynch’s work.

th_b_bennett_cityofstairs_ukRobert Bennett – I have only read one of Bennett’s books, City of Stairs, but it was enough. Bennett has displayed a talent for action, description, and imagination in his prose. His prose has both vivid detail, and an edge of humor, that makes scenes and descriptions both clear, beautiful, and memorable. In addition, in the creation of his original creatures and places he demonstrates a clear talent in helping the reader see his own imagination with clarity and understanding. His outrageous descriptives, dark humor, and use of the present tense in City of Stairs made me feel like I was reading something one of a kind.

61-whhujivl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Joe Abercrombie – Next we have the king of combat and the Escher of the fantasy world, Joe Abercrombie. I think that many in the fantasy world would agree that Abercrombie is one of the, if not the, most clever writers in the genre. There is so much going on in his prose that multiple people can read it, discuss it after, and wonder if they read the same story. Abercrombie’s prose feels like reality instead of a story, and does wonders bringing his tales to life. In addition, there are only a few authors who can write combat prose as well as Abercrombie. Many books feel like people just waving swords, but with Abercrombie you can feelevery sword blow, run every footstep, and take every breathe alongside the warriors in every battle.

828352Terry Pratchett – The world lost a giant when Terry Pratchett passed away last year. I honestly do not feel like I am a good enough writer to describe the power of Terry Pratchett’s prose, so instead for once I am going to refer you to the words of someone else on this list, Scott Lynch, as he describes what it was like to wake up in a world without Terry Pratchett (Warning – It will make you cry).

leguin01Ursula K. Le Guin – Le Guin’s prose is very, very powerful. She writes the kind of novels that make you feel bad about the way you live your life, and cause you to vow to give more to charity. Her prose uses tone and flow masterfully to manipulate your emotions and makes her messages incredibly heavy hitting. She is one of the few authors I have read to move me with just short stories like this one (only four pages long). Her work hits you like a truck full of bricks and is a great choice for someone looking for moving prose.

60211Gene Wolfe – Gene Wolfe writes the most dense, elusive prose I have probably ever read. His works are not on the same continent as “easy reads”. However, while his work requires a huge investment of time and patience, even the smallest snippet of his prose is enjoyable and oversaturated with meaning. You can read a book like Shadow of the Torturer 30 times and still find that each chunk of prose has new secrets that you did not find before. People are still writing books about the depth of his prose 30 years after it was published, so if you are looking for someone who meticulously chooses each word in a sentence/page/chapter/book he is always worth a read.

104089Guy Gavriel Kay – Kay writes mostly standalones, and his release times are infrequent. However, the long waits are always worth it as Kay’s prose will make you feel like you are living in another world or era. Kay is the most transportive writer I have ever read. He spends years studying the cultures and places he writes about so that he can get the details just right. His prose, without fail, takes you on journeys and fully immerses you in the characters lives until they feel like your own. His writing style is also incredibly poetic but also not too dense. This combination creates passages that are deeply moving but don’t require hours of thought to decipher their meaning. If you want to go on a journey, give any of his books a shot.

fellowship-of-the-ringJ. R. R. Tolkien – Tolkien. I feel like I really don’t need to justify why Tolkien is on this list, as Lord of the Rings is accepted as literature by a lot of people. However, I will say this – The Lord of the Rings is the kind of book that everyone wants to say they read, but doesn’t want to actually read. Its combination of popularity and dense prose encourage lots of people to skim through them in order to simple claim they have read it. This is a huge shame, because the prose (and everything) in Lord of the Rings is incredible. Tolkien’s prose is poetically descriptive, deeply laden with metaphors and symbolism, grand and inspiring in scope, and often times surprisingly funny and light hearted all at the same time. There is a reason he will forever be considered one of the all time fantasy masters, if you haven’t take some time and read through his books some time.