Sci-fi Book Club: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Sci-Fi book this month was le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” – which is 40 years old last year. It’s a tale of first contact. A single human is sent as a representative of a galactic community to a frozen world called “Winter”, it is the tale of his efforts to convince the planet to join the rest of the ‘known worlds’.

About 20 of us got together in Madlab. Most liked what we’d read, although a few didn’t. My advocacy failed to change anyone’s mind. The consensus was that it is about gender. I tried to claim it is about pride, but given that half the book is told from the point of a hermaphrodite, I was always going to struggle to win that argument.

The book’s multiple narrators annoyed and confused a few, as did the way occasional short fables and folk stories are dropped into the main stream of the story. These digressions do serve to illustrate the world and the attitudes of the locals, who’s gender is neutral most of the time, apart from a monthly burst of sexuality ‘kemmer’. The book explores what difference this  unique arrangement might make to a society.

Several people felt that the first few chapters take a while to get going but then it speeds up nicely.

The human central character was felt to be implausibly naive for a diplomat and to an extent a straw man, he is very slow to catch on with the power structures in a gender-blind world.

Which brings us to the ‘f’ word. We managed to get through 20 minutes before anyone said ‘feminism’. In that respect we decided that there was a surprising amount of sexism.

We were more forgiving of the other central character, Estraven who sacrifices everything for the cause and sees it through to the end.

There are a lot of fascinating concepts and characters sketched out: foretelling, telepathy, slow travel, lack of telephones/ and TV, faster-than-light communications, quantifiable luck, but only a few of them are developed which left us wanting more, probably a good thing.

We had an excellent discussion that helped illuminate and refresh an old favourite of mine.

As an experiment we offered a skype connection so members could join in remotely, no one did, but as a side effect I have a recording of the session – if anyone wants a copy, drop me an e-mail and I can send a link.

Next month on the 15th June, we meet again at Madlab to discuss ‘The City and the City’, when Dave picks up the advocacy baton.

-guest writer Tim Patton