The Left Hand of Darkness

LeGuinLeftHandUrsula K. Le Guin is the fine wine of science fiction. I suppose this makes Robert Heinlein the light beer, Orson Scott Card the Shirley Temple and Frank Herbert the cheap schnapps of the SciFi universe, respectively.

I realised a few weeks ago why people love science fiction so much. Beyond the obvious reasons like escapism and fantasy; and the appeal of sheer imagination, I think that science fiction flatters your intelligence. This is why lonely, alienated young men – who may be incredibly intelligent – are attracted to it.

It’s intellectual, but lazily so. Take Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s techy and Heinlein has obviously done some homework on what the future might look and sound like. Here’s the basic situation: the Moon has been turned into a penal colony; this colony has developed it’s own culture and so the main characters with the aid of sentient computer, they revolt. Heinlein has used the setting to lay out his politics. It’s basically an exploration of the theme of artificial intelligence and revolution. There is a set-piece scene where the major characters hold a political debate. I’ll tell you right now that Heinlein has typical Tea Party-esque political beliefs. He talks “libertarian” but votes Republican. It was crap. A crap debate. Heinlein wrote the book to show how pointless the Revolution would be; his politics fail to sound any more believable than his stories.

But the very fact that there is a “debate”; the very fact that these writers are thinking about likely futures and things like artificial intelligence raise the IQ of science fiction by a lot. It keeps people coming back for more because it makes them feel smart. It’s intellectualism lite.

And this is what makes Ursula K. Le Guin so damn good. Because she puts the intellectual in science fiction with out the “lite”. Her writing is thought out and logical consistent in ways that ole Heinlein just isn’t. Le Guin should have been a philosopher or sociologist, but she choose to write instead. I would argue that her work has some serious academic gravitas. Each book is a complete thought-experiment in itself.

The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a world where people have no gender; they become male or female and get sex drive only like once a month. It’s a hard, winter world, full of cross country skiing, intrigue, and complex social rituals. It’s as much about the main character – a normal male sent as an envoy to this planet – coming to understanding these genderless people as anything else. It’s a meditation on our sexuality and how it has shaped our society.

I didn’t like The Left Hand of Darkness as much as The Dispossessed. It didn’t have the same sweep of ideas; this book is quite insular in its way. It is interesting to read a female writing for a male character that interacts only with genderless people. You don’t read that everyday. She does a good job.

A good book from a great author.




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