Saturday, July 25, 2009

On "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin ****

I've been wondering why science fiction and fantasy are usually housed together as genres. The answer should have been obvious, but it only dawned on me while reading this book. LeGuin's Left Hand is, I suppose, technically science fiction. It involves spacecraft and alien beings. But its setting is a fantastic world, no less real than Tolkien's Middle Earth. If anything involving fantastic worlds is fantasy, then half of science fiction is also fantasy. (Where I find the combination strange is when one is dealing with a world based on Arthurian-type legend, as Tolkien's world is. There is nothing sci fi about it.)

Of the books on this fantasy and legend list, Le Guin's so far ranks as my favorite. It didn't start out that way. The many strange place names, the inhospitable prose, the emphasis on treaties and other dull government tasks were all quite off putting. But somewhere about the time that Mr. Ai, our alien envoy, is dismissed from the government representatives of Karhide, the book gets very interesting. Mr. Ai ends up taking his desire for open trade to a rival country, Orgoreyn, and eventually finds himself in a bit of trouble--and having to depend on Estraven, a Karhider for whom there is little trust. In the process, one learns of this strange world, where it is always winter and where sex occurs only once a month when the otherwise neutered people go into heat. And one gets a captivating adventure story with a good deal of heart, as Mr. Ai flees for his life.

What of mankind? What of dualism? What of friendship? What of courage? Of gender? Of history and how it's written? Of legend and of how it comes to be? All such issues get played out amid what is actually a rather simple story.

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