Classics Club: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The new Folio Society edition of this book is available here. A copy was received from the publisher for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Binding design by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s no secret that Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, but I’d somehow managed never to read her most acclaimed science fiction novel — even though the paperback cover with its male-female snow sculpture face is engraved on my memory, probably from my days shelving books in the public library. It’s also no secret, and I hope not a spoiler, to say that the setting of the book is a planet inhabited by people not defined by gender. They bear the potential to manifest as either male or female, and only come into single-sexed form once a month, the sex in question depending on the others in their environment. When a stranger from the interplanetary alliance called the Ekumen visits their remote, wintry world of Gethen, he must come to terms with this very alien society and try to break through its resistance to his call for peaceful cooperation.

As with most science fiction of the time, the book was not considered serious literature when first published. But that did not stop it from becoming a groundbreaking work of gender re-imagination, of social-science-fiction, the genre in which Le Guin excels. Its profound influence on writers and readers is acknowledged in Becky Chambers’s introduction to the austerely beautiful new Folio Society edition, which points out that the Terran protagonist must spend the length of the story overcoming the biases built into him by his biology, just as we do today. And though we still struggle with the bias and conflict and abusive behaviors that spring from our divided nature, we can look back at the years since Le Guin’s novel was published and see that our ideas have become more fluid and open, and have the potential to become even more so.

Illustrations by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

This book was an opening gambit in that conversation, and it’s fascinating to read it for the first time just now. At first my response was mixed. Le Guin’s language is always finely and thoughtfully crafted, but I found it jarring that the male pronoun and the word “man” are used for Gethenians, making it very hard not to picture the male gender. I wish that Le Guin could perhaps have been more daring with her language, even though as we all know it’s incredibly awkward to come up with a gender-neutral pronoun in English. The strangeness and awkwardness would not have been inappropriate, though, as it requires a real mental effort to imagine an androgynous society.

I was also surprised and rather dismayed that specifically female experience was largely absent from the novel. The amazing fact that Gethenian “men” can also be pregnant and bear children is mentioned, but never shown. Even though there must be pregnant and nursing “women” present during the time of the story, we never see them; we read the startling phrase “The king was pregnant” but he doesn’t appear onstage in this state, and we just get the report of his child’s death. Again, this made Gethen seem like a society of default men, with the female form as more of an aberration than an integral part. In fact, it could be viewed as a kind of male fantasy, where women are present for their essential functions (sex, childbirth) but absent the rest of the time, along with their pesky hormonal imbalances and mood swings.

Illustrations by David Lupton for The Folio Society’s edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

But does this anthro-centrism have a hidden point? Is it in fact due to the perspective of the Envoy, Genly Ai? His misogynistic prejudices filter through his narrative; whenever he mentions a Gethenian as having a feminine quality, it’s generally negative. His only encounter with a “girl” in the state of kemmer (when Gethenians come into their mating potential) inspires wordless disgust in him. A pathetic captive like himself at this point, she nevertheless seems to threaten him in some fundamental way that he can’t even express. And when he’s asked by a Gethenian what single-sexed women are like, he has no idea. Apparently the people of the future have been able to master interstellar travel, but the nature of half their population remains inscrutable to the other.

But then Genly must undergo an arduous journey across the great ice field that covers much of Gethen, in company with Estraven, the only person on the planet who has supported him, and whom he has so far distrusted. Estraven takes a tremendous risk in order to bring Genly out of captivity, which involves performing a deeply feminine role: creating a space of warmth, cultivating life, enduring hardship for the sake of human connections. Experiencing Estraven’s unwavering commitment to the forces of transformation changes Genly; distrust turns to friendship, and then to love. It changes us too, as readers. We experience something of the true nature of sacrifice, of the process of conception, gestation, and birth that is one of the great mysteries of human life — and that truly transcends all limitations imposed by our bodies.

Estraven wanted to change the world. We can, too. And if you need some guidance across the icy wasteland of today’s fractured cultural landscape, this book has something to offer. Read it, and let it spark your own questions about what is vital, what is essential, what is real. So the journey begun by Genly and Estraven may continue.

Classics Club List #54


Classics Club: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

Frankenstein is one of those stories that everyone knows, even if you haven’t read it. Except once you do read it, you realize that the version in the popular imagination has little to do with Mary Shelley’s actual creation. There, you will find no mad scientists robbing graves for body parts; no lightning striking a ruined castle to the sound of cackling laughter; no grinning henchmen or spark-emitting machines. Shelley’s vision is much subtler and more psychologically astute than that. Though there are dramatic external events, of course, what’s really interesting is what is going on inside Frankenstein and his monstrous “child,” the ways in which they mirror one another, and their tragic inability to connect.

To get into this story that everybody knows (but doesn’t), you have to first wade through all the narrative layers in which Shelley has wrapped it. An explorer trying to reach the North Pole — which at the time was thought to be a sort of Earthly Paradise, warm and fertile if one could just get through the ice — writes letters to his sister, in which he describes how he has picked up a dying man, found in pursuit of a strange figure who eludes him and races off across the ice. This is Victor Frankenstein, who proceeds to explain how he created and then resolved to destroy this being (who, in another layer, also gets to tell some of his own story).

It’s a cumbersome and roundabout way of getting at a tale that could seemingly be told in a more straightforward way, but it also reflects one of the main themes: the loneliness and isolation that keep us from one another, the way we are “wrapped up” in our own ideas and ambitions. To break through this icy covering would require a leap of imagination and empathy that Frankenstein, groundbreaking scientist though he is, is tragically never able to make.

Once he has brought his creature to life (in a way that, in contrast to the dramatized versions, is left vague and unexplained), he takes one look at it and is unutterably repelled. He simply wants to ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist. Until he nears the end of his journey, he doesn’t speak about it, doesn’t even want to think about it. Out of sight, out of mind, he thinks — a very human, yet very ineffective response to an overwhelming situation.

He does not tell anyone what he has done, even once he becomes convinced that the creature has begun to murder his friends and relations. Isn’t this because, frozen by his own egotism, he is unable to take responsibility and own what he has done, what he is? He says he fears that people will think him mad, but he is worse than that. When the “monster” kills and destroys, he is only doing outwardly what his creator is doing inwardly. This brilliant thinker with stunted emotions is unable to live up morally to what he has achieved intellectually.

His nameless creation, meanwhile, states that he simply wants to be loved, to find connection in a world that repels him at every turn. His rage and vengefulness is a reflection of how he has been treated, an externalized representation of Frankenstein’s own inability to love and to create true, living connections. Even when Frankenstein decides to marry, it’s to an adopted sister whom he has known from childhood, who does not threaten him with unfamiliar ideas or perceptions. He speaks of her in terms of ownership, as one who belongs to him by right. To him, she is a thing, not a person, just like the being he has created and then run away from in terror.

And so, it’s inevitable that the Frankenstein-monster should destroy this marriage. No human being who has never confronted the demons within himself, who has never humbly confessed his weaknesses and woken to the independent reality of the other person, can enter into the true marriage of opposites.

In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein dies without ever coming to this recognition, but the explorer who has embraced him as a friend — and his surrogate, the reader — may have a chance to go further. As he turns his ship back from the ice to save his crew, there is a hope that he (and we) might have learned something about relationships, about love, about realms that purely cold, heartless research will never attain — but which we must pursue in the service of a truly human future.

Classics Club list #52


New in Paperback: The Bees

Laila Paull, The Bees (2014)


With its insect-eye view of life inside a beehive, The Bees is a brilliant imaginative exploration of a fascinating and complex world. Born to be just one of a mass of anonymous sanitation workers, Flora 717 turns out to have some special qualities. As she goes on an unprecedented journey through the hive and its environs, she takes us from the drudgery of cleansing the morgue to the ritual ecstasies of the Queen’s sacred presence, from the holy peace of the nursery to the furious activity of repelling intruders like wasps and mice.

Paull is a playwright and screenwriter, but I can see why she chose to write this story as a novel (her first). Through narrative she can depict the sensuous life of the bees, their experiencing of scent, taste, touch, and vibration, in a way that would be very difficult in a visual medium. This was a very vivid and striking aspect of the book, one of my favorites. I also enjoyed the semi-human characterization of the various bee groups — the hedonistic drones, the brave and intrepid foragers, the solemn royal priestesses, the terrifying soldiers.

On the other hand, I found certain mentions of tables or door handles or symbols carved in the walls to be jarring, and thought
these could easily have been eliminated to make the book more convincing. Of course, bees wouldn’t talk, either, or have a religious life, and so on, but one has to accept some narrative conventions or the whole thing falls apart. For me, it was the physical objects that held me up, although they may have been meant metaphorically.

I was left wondering to what extent the depiction of bee biology was really accurate. I heard a podcast interview with the author in which she declared that the strangest things (like the fertility police and the expulsion of the drones) were factual, and although I was skeptical about the central premise of Flora’s difference it seems to be technically possible, though extremely rare. I would have appreciated a few notes about this aspect, pointing out what was based in fact and what might have been altered by artistic license.

Although it’s being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm, and The Hunger Games, the book The Bees recalls to me most strongly is Watership Down. Like Richard Adams’s rabbit saga, it attempts to plunge us into the alien consciousness of nature, and thus to bring us a compelling new vision of our world — but can’t completely leave behind the human lens through which we see it. If you can accept it within those limitations, however, it can be a thrilling and immersive reading experience, and give you a new respect for these amazing and endangered creatures.

Paperback release date: May 12, 2015

Be sure to check out the discussion over at Shiny New Books!


Sampling the Cybils

When award decisions come up, I have seldom read enough of the nominees to have an opinion about the worthiness of the winner. This year, I decided to read the finalists in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Children’s and Young Adult Book Bloggers’ Literary Awards (aka the Cybils), which looked like a lovely assortment to spend some time with.

With one exception, I enjoyed all of these books very much, and wouldn’t have been sorry to see any of them the winner. The swashbuckling space battle of The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra and the heart-warming squirrel epic Nuts to You were two very different tales of adventure that both left me with a smile on my face. With Greenglass House I was drawn into a new and fascinating world of smugglers, stained glass, and a mysterious inn and its inhabitants; at the end I didn’t want to leave. The Castle Behind Thorns had another large, mystery-haunted structure at its heart, in the midst of an enchanting fairy tale woven around themes of mending and forgiveness. Boys of Blur, a supernatural thriller set in the Florida sugarcane fields, was impressive for its taut storytelling, vividly described setting, and memorable characters.

Of the finalists, perhaps my favorite (though Greenglass House and The Castle Behind Thorns were not far behind) was The Swallow, a spooky yet touching story that concerned two families with some painful secrets they need to accept, and two girls whose friendship has the potential to bring healing to both of them. I’m not usually a fan of the “paranormal” genre, but this twist on the “girl who can see ghosts” tale was not about giving readers gratuitous and ultimately unsatisfying thrills, but about expanding our awareness in order to become more open toward and accepting of ourselves and others.

The one book I didn’t finish, The Luck Uglies, a series opener set in an imaginary city threatened by slavering monsters, had nothing really wrong with it; it just failed to capture my interest after 100 pages. I have to confess that it surprised me that this was the book that won the award! Different readers have different tastes, clearly, and mine are different from those of the award committee.

In general, though, I believe the committee has succeeded admirably in recognizing books that “combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal.” Funny, imaginative, lyrical, suspenseful — these seven books have it all, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to readers young and old.

Review copy sources: Library/purchased

Top Ten Classics You Might Not Have Heard Of

Broke and Bookish meme

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is “Top Ten Classic Books,” or variations thereof. My favorite classic books don’t really need any more publicity from me (e.g. Great Expectations, Twelfth Night, Leaves of Grass), so I decided to make a list of classic books I love that aren’t so well-exposed. If you discover any of these marvelous under-the-radar reads through my list, I’ll be very pleased.

Elizabeth Gaskell novel classic

1. Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)
Though her star has been eclipsed by Victorian giants such as Dickens and Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell’s wise, compassionate novels very much hold up to scrutiny today. This, her final — and alas, unfinished — work of fiction, starts in fairy-tale fashion with a man who marries the wrong woman, meaning her to be a mother to his young daughter.

2. Flatland – Edwin Abbott (1884)
A funny and thought-provoking mathematical satire, which describes how A. Square, resident of the two-dimensional Flatland, has strange encounters with other geometrical entities from a world of three dimensions. 

3. Indian Summer – William Dean Howells (1886)
This Jamesian comedy of love found in middle age is perhaps most enjoyable when one has reached the age of reason oneself. 

Andrew Lang fairy tales

4. The Chronicles of Pantouflia – Andrew Lang (1889/1893)
The editor of the famous Rainbow Fairy Books wrote two original stories which draw on many of the themes and motifs in the tales he knew so well. 

5. The Odd Women – George Gissing (1893)
Although not entirely successful in its characterizations, this novel offers a penetrating analysis of the social and economic plight of “odd” (that is, surplus or unpaired) women in the late nineteenth century. Gissing’s vision is bleak, but has a touch of dark humor. 

6. Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight – Elizabeth von Arnim (1905)
Von Arnim is best known for The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but here’s another charming story about a princess who tires of pomp and wants to be ordinary (but finds this is not so easy as it may seem). Incidentally, I found this title through Girlebooks, which is a great source for classics by women.

Hope Mirrlees fantasy classic 
7. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees (1926)
A slyly humorous story of how “fairy fruit” invades and transforms a respectable town. This beautifully written fantasy lapsed into obscurity for many years until interest was revived recently by admirers including James Blaylock and Neil Gaiman.

8. The Corn King and the Spring Queen – Naomi Mitchison (1931)
With its insights into the magic-saturated, often barbaric mindset of ancient cultures from Greece to Egypt, this massive historical novel offers a fascinating imaginative window into the past. 

9. Mio, My Son – Astrid Lindgren (1954)
This lesser-known fantasy by the creator of Pippi Longstocking is a poetic tale about an unloved boy transported from our world to a new destiny as the son of the king of Farawayland. Sadly out of print, it deserves a campaign to bring it back.

10. The Pooh Perplex – Frederick C. Crews (1965)
A must for all English majors, this priceless parody examines the Pooh books from a variety of critical angles. You’ll never look at Freudian analysis in the same way again. 

Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day Five

Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars (1970).  

Today’s Armchair BEA theme is middle-grade/YA fiction, so I’m taking a second look at a YA science fiction classic. This was the recipient of the 1990 Phoenix Award and has been praised by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry, so it quickly rose to the top of my list.

Enchantress from the Stars is a space-age fable that takes on some knotty questions of truth, belief, freedom and sacrifice. It posits the existence of human-like beings at three stages of evolution: members of the Federation, who have advanced beyond war and exploitation and have developed psychic powers such as telepathy and telekinesis; citizens of the Empire, who have advanced technology that they are using to take over other planets; and the medieval-stage people of Andrecia, a planet in the process of being colonized.

The Federation’s goal is to preserve the freedom of less-evolved civilizations, to allow them to continue to progress on their individual paths without annihilating each other (on the planetary level…it seems they are free to have wars and commit injustices with other people and civilizations on the same planet). To do this, specially trained agents interfere selectively in situations like the one on Andrecia, appearing within the native belief system as beings from a world of mystery and enchantment. To give the account of one such mission, Engdahl uses the device of narrating it from three alternating points of view. The primary voice is that of young Elana, who tells her own story of stowing away on a Federation mission to save the endangered inhabitants of Andrecia, with life-changing consequences for all concerned. A third-person narrative thread follows Jarel, a doctor whose view of the Empire is being soured by the treatment of the “natives” who have the misfortune to be in the way on their new planetary colony. The final part is narrated in classic folktale style, telling of Georyn, a woodcutter’s youngest son who sets out to slay the dragon that is menacing the land.

It’s an ingenious notion, and Engdahl plays it out well, with all the shifts in perspective smoothly and convincingly done. (Ostensibly the entire book is actually being written by Elana as her report to the Federation following the mission, which would seem to qualify her for a career as a novelist if space exploration doesn’t work out.) Each incident that seems magical to the Andrecians has a logical explanation from another point of view. The rock-chewing “dragon” is actually an Imperial machine that’s working to clear the land for the colonists, for example, and the magical trials that Georyn goes through are engineered by the Enchantress (Elana) and her colleagues to strengthen him for his task of frightening away the invaders. Things get complicated as Elana becomes more involved, and more emotionally invested, in the mission than she had ever expected to be. She wonders about the ethics of manipulating Georyn in this way, while the necessity to conceal the very existence of the Federation from the Imperial colonists (to avoid their gaining access to ideas and technology they are not yet ready for) becomes increasingly fraught.

I don’t have a strong memory of this book from reading it as a child or young teen. I think I liked it, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me — unlike A Wrinkle in Time, which is somewhat similar in using space travel as a vehicle for philosophical exploration, and is engraved on my heart. Reading Enchantress again today, I was distracted by questions about the plausibility of the whole idea, which of course is fatal to a fable, as well as bothered by the oversimplified opposition between science and magic, which implies that all numinous or magical experiences can be made mundane by a shift in perspective. I was also uncomfortable with Georyn and Elana’s relationship — to him, she’s something like a goddess, while to her he’s like a highly intelligent pet; yet they are supposed to fall in love. Perhaps this is meant to be a comment on how love can reach across boundaries, or obviate the need to actually know a person, but I found it hard to swallow.

Quibbles aside, I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this book, which is well-written and thoughtful, even if I don’t agree with all the thoughts in it. It might strike just the right chord with you, as it has done with many readers through the years, and could spark discussion and contemplation of many interesting questions. Although I didn’t whole-heartedly enjoy it, I had to think hard about why — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1990 Phoenix Award winner