"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
It's a story for everyone who has ever lost faith in something they had once built their world upon, whether that be a religion, a career path, a self-concept, or a relationship.”It’s a feeling I can’t convey to you. It was something that I believed deeply, implicitly, and it’s not true, and I’m the one who demonstrated it.”
I read this one twice, and both times it left me a sore and sputtering wreck, broken up on the shoals of my terror of the future. But it is beautiful, and true, and it's the story I needed to read at this point in my life."Eventually, many years from now, I’ll be without your father, and without you… So I pay close attention, and note every detail.”
The premise of this one is sure to be questionable or offensive to many readers, but again, it was the kind of story I needed to read right now. And, like so many others in this book, it takes a basic idea (what would the world be like if Babylonian cosmology/18th-Century preformationism/Old-Testament theology were scientific fact?) and considers it in detailed depth and breadth, while still telling a compassionate, profound story at its core."Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as ransom for his wife's return. Obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heartfelt love? That was a ransom he couldn't pay."
The Grip of It is an intensely unnerving book about everyday horrors made manifest in a haunted-house fever dream.
James and Julie are young urbanites who move to an old house in a small town, hoping the change of scenery will save their crumbling marriage. Away from the city, they believe, James will overcome his gambling addiction, Julie will move past her resentment of him, and they will restore the connection that brought them together in the first place. In the process, they plan to become the type of people they assume are happy: those who move at a slower pace, who get to know their neighbors, who patronize the local mom & pop establishments, who ensconce themselves in the charms of small-town life.
This endeavor neither begins nor ends well.
The book opens with a realtor showing off the property that will become James and Julie's new home, constantly drawing their attention to - and then dismissing - the strange buzzing noise that permeates the structure: "That's just the house settling." But the sound (moaning... like an incantation, some sort of ritual snarl) follows James and Julie everywhere they go, as does the strange grimy waterstain on the basement wall, the ominous drawings and unreadable superimposed script that appear throughout the house, and the myriad secret rooms and passages that keep revealing themselves - and then vanishing.
Even outside their (clearly haunted) house, none of James and Julie's plans seem willing to materialize. The local businesses refuse to serve them. The townspeople gossip about their home's tragic (but conflicting) history. The elderly next-door neighbor stares menacingly at them through the windows. Their jobs fall apart. Their friendships sour.
Various explanations for the couple's troubles are offered throughout the book, from sterile medical diagnoses to gaslighting abusers to festering restless spirits. None of these really fits the evidence, which remains elusive and contradictory and totally inexplicable. And yet there was always this sense of familiarity as I was reading this book, this prickly feeling of impending doom that I have experienced when suppressing destabilizing truths that I was not yet ready to accept.
The novel’s title hints at how ominous it is - to be trapped in the thrall of this thing that you are not willing to name or describe. You resolve to ignore it, hoping that by sheer will you'll be able to continue your ordinary life, maintain a job, a relationship, friends, and hobbies. But it doggedly manifests itself - on your body, in your dreams, on the walls, in the neighbors' faces, in the droning, moaning sound at the limit of your hearing.
The opening paragraph describes this feeling perfectly:
Maybe we move in and we don't hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as we try to describe it and fail. "You don't hear it? It's like a mouth harp. Deep twang. Like throat singing. Ancient. Glottal. Resonant. Husky and rasping, but underwater." Alone in the house, though, we become less aware of it, like a persistent, dull headache. Deaf to the sound, until the silence of ownership settles over us. Maybe we decide we will try to like the noise. Maybe we find comfort in it. Maybe an idea insists itself more easily than an action.
This, of course, will never work. Choosing to ignore or embrace the warning bells clanging in the back of your mind will not make them go away. Will not stabilize a situation you know is untenable. Will not conquer an unacceptable reality. Pretty soon, you’ll start spiraling out of control the way Julie and James do in this book.
It's not the house settling. I promise you, it's something worse.
And speaking of which, the way he describes those foggy childhood memories, pulled up from hidden depths by the thread of a sight or a smell, is incredibly resonant. It perfectly mirrored the way I feel whenever I return to my childhood home and suddenly start tripping over all kinds of memories and emotions that had been dormant for years.I had been here, hadn't I, a long time ago? I was sure I had. Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.
It is 1950 in Nazi-occupied Paris. Clearly, we are in a reality alternate to our own.
If Germans were the only invading force, that would be bad enough. But Paris is also overrun with nightmare visions plucked from the imaginations of surrealist writers, painters, and sculptors who believed that art could conquer fascism. And there are infernal invaders too, strange demonic entities vomited up from the bowels of hell - it seems that they are allied with the Nazis, but only to a point. For the citizens trapped within the city limits, it is safest to avoid all three types of monster.
Our protagonist, Thibaut, is a member of La Main à Plume, a splinter group of Surrealists who stayed behind in Paris, while André Breton and many of the movement's leading lights fled to safety in America. Thibaut's group patrols the city streets, in wary coexistence with the manifested art, holding the Nazis just barely at bay.
After several of his friends are killed in a raid gone wrong, Thibaut teams up with an American woman, Sam, whose cover story (she says she is shooting photos of the strange manifestations in Paris for a book) seems a little thin, but whose cunning and street smarts are a valuable asset. Together, Thibaut and Sam seek the source of the surrealist manifs and the secret of the rumored German superweapon known as Fall Rot - desperate to turn the tide of their supernatural war before this new horror swallows art and humanity alike.
I went into this book fully expecting to not understand it. I had heard that it was essentially a love letter to the Surrealist art movement, and - aside from a vague mental image of Dalí's floppy clocks - I knew almost nothing about Surrealism. Given China Miéville's towering intellect and exhaustive knowledge about his many obsessions, I figured this book's insights and allusions would breeze right over my head.
Thankfully, I was only half right. Although I would have had no idea how to envision the manifs or interpret their significance from the novella's text alone, Miéville was kind enough to include an appendix of endnotes, giving philistine readers like myself the tools to track down images and background info on Paris's living oddities. There's a pretty decent compilation of them here.
So this rapidly became a very bumpy, stop-start reading experience, where I'd read a sentence, flip to the endnotes for a citation, spend 20 minutes falling down a google hole, and come sputtering back up for air having completely forgotten what was happening in the narrative. I read most of these chapters three times through or more, carefully knitting art and context to the characters' experiences. With many other authors, this would have exhausted me, taken me completely out of the story. I've never been particularly interested in art history, anyway.
But here, as usual, Miéville is a wizard. He never tells the reader why Surrealism is fascinating, and he never infodumps a bunch of names, titles, or doctrines. He just writes a gripping story that threads in hints of the movement's history and influence, and lets the reader do the rest on their own. This is my favorite way to learn - from watching somebody else love something, and being compelled to discover why they love it so much.
But I don't recommend The Last Days of New Paris just for this didactic aspect. If the thought of learning about Surrealism vaguely bores you (as it did me!), that's no reason to avoid this book. It's also a fast-paced urban fantasy, a fascinating alternate history of World War II, a gritty survivalist tale reminiscent of the best of the postapocalyptic genre. Its characters are believable, but have enough Miévillian weirdness to keep you guessing about their outlook and motives. Its horrors are beautiful and strange and terrifying. You could - maybe you should - plow through this in one satisfying sitting, and only tuck into the endnotes later.
It's an engrossing reading experience, either way.
Despite this novella's ultimate idealism, I'm too much of a cynic to believe that art will actually save the world. But I can't help agreeing with Miéville's avatar in the Afterword:
Perhaps some understanding of the nature of the manifs of New Paris, of the source and power of art and manifestation, may be of some help to us, in times to come.
Red Clocks examines some of the ways women navigate the question of whether and how and with whom to have children - and the entitlement society feels to comment on, interfere with, and ultimately constrain these inherently private choices. Each of the book’s five protagonists are compelled to sacrifice pieces of their sanity and dignity in pursuit simple self-determination.
The novel is set in a near-future version of the United States, where the newly-ratified Personhood Amendment to the Constitution now grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every fertilized human egg. Not only is abortion now considered murder, but miscarriages can be manslaughter and in-vitro fertilization is banned (because the embryo cannot consent to be moved into the womb). As the book opens, the Every Child Needs Two Act is set to take effect in two months, legally mandating that all adoptive parents be married and obtain government approval before taking in a child.
In the small coastal Oregon town where Red Clocks is set, four women are affected by these developments in various ways:
* Ro teaches at the local high school. Forty-two and single, with no interest in romantic partnership, she desperately wants to be a mother. With in-vitro not an option, she has been trying to conceive via artificial insemination, but her age and health issues make conception unlikely. She is also pursuing adoption, but knows that if she does not match with a birth mother within two months, that road will be closed to her too.
* Mattie is Ro’s best student, who gets pregnant by her on-again but-mostly-off-again boyfriend. Terrified of ruining her reputation, squandering her academic future, and letting her parents down, she will do anything to get an abortion. Having witnessed the harrowing outcome of her best friend’s attempted abortion a year ago, she has no illusions about what this choice entails physically or legally. Still, as an adopted child herself, she struggles with the feeling that she should have the baby and surrender it to a deserving home.
* Gin is a practitioner of alternative medicine who lives in a cabin in the hills above town. Raised by her occultist aunt after her abusive mother abandoned her, Gin is now rumored to be a witch who can control the weather, the sea, and the townspeople’s individual fortunes. In reality, she merely assists local women with various gynecological issues, including providing herbal concoctions to induce abortions. When the school principal’s wife falls down the stairs and slips into a coma after drinking one of her potions, Gin is arrested and put on trial - for medical malpractice and conspiracy to murder the woman’s fetus.
* Susan is married to the high school French teacher. She had dropped out of law school to marry him and move back to her family’s old homestead in the tiny town. They now have two young children, and though she loves her kids, she increasingly resents her shiftless husband, who slouches his way through life, only managing to hold down a job because he could teach his native French in his sleep. With no local career opportunities, no time to herself, and seemingly no way to leave her marriage without scarring the kids forever, Susan feels trapped. She is alarmed by the destructive urges that ambush her more and more frequently - to just steer the car off the edge of the hillside road, plunging her and the children into the ocean below.
Interspersed with these four women’s stories are passages from the biography Ro is writing about Eivør Mínervudottír, a 19th-century polar explorer who had to hide her gender to gain passage on a scientific expedition, and was later obliged to publish her findings under a man’s name. Eivør’s tale emphasizes the difficulties non-conforming women have always faced, and her perseverance through adverse conditions is mirrored, in one way or another, by each of the novel’s other protagonists.
With the exception of Gin and Eivør, whom I found distant and somewhat flat, I loved immersing myself in these women’s stories. Ro and Susan were especially fascinating, each having reached the age where their youthful choices have solidified into the immobile foundations of their lives. Each resents the other for having what she does not - Ro has a career and independence, but Susan has two perfect children. And Mattie too is a poignant character, brave enough to risk capture crossing the Canadian border for an abortion, but too scared to look her parents in the eye and tell them she has gotten pregnant.
Despite how much I loved the characters, their struggles and their courage, Red Clocks didn’t quite work for me because its high-concept dystopian premise felt both unnecessary and toothless. The story could have been set in the modern day with few substantive revisions - and it would, I think, have had more resonance. It’s easy to accept that life would be awful under an oppressive fetus-worshipping regime, and so the premise itself carried too much of the emotional weight, I felt. It would be a harsher critique to show these issues in their real-world setting: There are plenty of women today who can’t conceive and aren’t able to adopt for various reasons. There are plenty of women today who feel suffocated in their marriages. There are plenty of women today who are shunned or falsely accused of horrors because they are seen as different. There are plenty of teenage girls today who face serious financial, logistical, and social/religious hurdles when seeking an abortion.
And so the reproductive restrictions imposed by the government in Red Clocks ultimately become just one more impediment these women must overcome. And in one way or another, each of them do overcome, so the book’s dystopian bite fails to puncture the skin. It sends a message that I’m a little uncomfortable with for this kind of book: “We can survive this,” instead of “We should never allow this to happen in the first place.”
That might honestly just be me, though. I like my dystopias bleak.
Oddly, the most chilling, the most traditionally dystopian story in all of this is barely told at all. What happened to Mattie’s best friend Yasmine hovers vaguely in the background of the narrative, but what we can see of it is truly horrific. Ambitious and bright, the daughter of Oregon’s first female Black senator, Yasmine had been determined not to let an unplanned pregnancy reduce her to a degrading stereotype. What she endures is truly appalling - a far darker, more heartbreaking story than Mattie’s, or any of the other women Red Clocks spotlights. I wish we had seen more stories like Yasmine’s, to make it crystal clear why policies like this reprehensible Personhood Amendment must never, ever be implemented.
I thought I knew what to expect from American War before I even cracked the first page. From the jacket blurb and from my experience with apocalyptic novels, I thought this would follow a familiar formula: The author would weave together threads from current social and political attitudes to compose a dark and terrifyingly plausible future. The next American civil war, though taking place decades from now, would surely break along the lines of today's significant divides: race, class, religion, lifestyle, or political ideology. Because the author is Muslim and the protagonist has an Arabic first name, I vaguely assumed the book would follow the experiences of a Muslim family caught in the conflict.
I was wrong about all of this. So wrong that for the first few hundred pages, I thought I was reading an entirely different - and much worse - book than the one I actually held in my hands.
My misconceptions about the protagonist's backstory were the simplest to correct: Sarat Chestnut is not Muslim, but Catholic. Her parents are Martina, who is Black, and Benjamin, who is Latino. Along with her twin sister Dana and brother Simon, the family lives in southern Louisiana, beside the swollen waterway now known as the Mississippi Sea. By today's standards they are quite poor, living in a shipping container, generating energy with solar panels, and filtering rainwater for drinking, but they get by. Sarat would have considered her childhood almost idyllic, had the war not arrived to cut it short with repeated and ever-escalating brutalities.
The details of the war itself were where the book started to ring false for me. After the American government banned the use of fossil fuels in 2074, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia seceded to form the Free Southern State. South Carolina would have joined them, but the entire state had been walled off and quarantined after a government-released calming agent turned its population to zombies. Florida might have joined them too, but it had long since disappeared under the rising ocean waters.
With all of the issues currently dividing us, it did not seem realistic or interesting to me that the next civil war would be driven by stale regional grudges dating back to the 1800's, or that it would be solely precipitated by the South's cussed devotion to a destructive and obsolete fuel source. It was especially jarring that all of those other issues I mentioned above - race, religion, class, politics - are never mentioned as relevant factors in the war. Or in American life at all. I guess by the 2070's we'd solved all of that - the only contentious issue was the gasoline.
This premise seemed so off and so odd to me that I couldn't take large portions of the book seriously. It seemed like such a glaring misunderstanding of modern America's internal strife. How could I be properly scared of a dystopia that wasn't populated by metastasized versions of today's bogeymen?
But this is where I didn't understand the book at all, or the story it was actually telling. It isn't intended to be a commentary on American culture. It isn't interested in realistically portraying the causes or methods of war. If I had been paying attention, I would have recognized this from the beginning. The narrator spells it out right in the prologue: "This isn't a story about war. It's about ruin."
This book is about what happens to Sarat and her family throughout the war's harrowing 21 years. She is 6 years old when it begins, not yet 30 when the reunification treaty is signed. When the war breaks out her family are civilians, uninterested in politics, not partisan to any particular side. They love each other; they love their home. They just want to get by.
There are millions of Sarats out there right now.
What we are inculcating in them now with our military operations could very well bear bitter, vengeful fruit for decades, for generations, to come. This isn't about war - its justifications, its high-minded ideologies, its dark utilitarian bargains. It's about ruin.
"Everyone fights an American war."
Changing Planes is a delightful book. It delights me.
This anthropological tour through some of the stranger societies in the multiverse begins by explaining its basic premise: Airports are not only portals to other terrestrial cities, but also to other dimensions. Interplanar travel requires no machine or vehicle, no magical incantations or special knowledge. The remarkably simple method was developed by one Sita Dulip, who discovered it when her flight out of Chicago was delayed several times and finally canceled. Trapped, exhausted, uncomfortable, and bored, she realized that:
By a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe, she could go anywhere - be anywhere - because she was already between planes.
(Normally, I would have no truck with any book whose premise was based on such a ridiculous pun - but over the years I have made a few grudging exceptions to this policy.)
The rest of the book is divided into fifteen short stories - or really, ethnographies - about life on the different planes. Some of them are moral allegories, some are social satires, some portray strange and unsettling alien philosophies. None of the chapters have much plot to speak of, but they are all fascinating vignettes. The formula is essentially: "Let me tell you a few things about the people of _____."
Despite this common approach, the stories are fairly diverse in style and theme. Four of the standouts highlight some of the different tacks Le Guin takes:
Seasons of the Ansarac is an ethnographic description of the migratory people of Ansar. On a plane where each season lasts for six of our years, the people spend spring and summer raising children in idyllic northern homesteads before heading south to the vibrant cities every fall and winter. Le Guin's detailed description of Ansarac folkways is fascinating, but the story takes a darker turn when visitors from another plane (one similar to ours) arrive, convince the Ansarac that they are primitive, backward, and hormone-driven, and offer to help them adopt a modern lifestyle.
Great Joy satirizes the American obsession with meaningless holiday kitsch, describing a privately-owned plane where one island is always Christmas, one the 4th of July, one New Year's Eve, and so on. This plane's sickly-sweet candy coating covers a horrifying system of slavery and exploitation - not that Christmas-loving midwestern Cousin Sulie and her fellow patrons give much of a shit about that. "I just get right into the spirit just thinking about Christmas Island! Oh, it is just such a happy place!"
Wake Island is a cautionary dystopia about science gone awry. Based on their theory that sleep is a vestigial trait that keeps most humans from accessing their latent genius, a group of scientists genetically design babies who need no sleep. This is essentially the same premise as Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, but Le Guin's aftermath is much more disturbing.
The Island of the Immortals is in many ways a horror story, cloaked in the guise of classic science fiction. It reminds me quite a bit of the better works of H.G. Wells, where a lone traveler encounters a society he at first cannot understand - and then later wishes he never tried. In this story, the narrator has heard of an island on the Yendian plane which is populated by immortals. Curious to learn the secret of their longevity, she visits - only to find the locals quiet, standoffish, and oddly somber. There are immortals among them, yes, but they are not what the narrator expects. This is the story that has remained in my mind most vividly since I first read this book almost a decade ago. It is, in my opinion, one of Le Guin's most powerful and thoughtful pieces.
Ursula K. Le Guin died last month; I reread this book in part as a memorial (and in part because I just love it so much). Given her recent passing, this excerpt in particular struck me:
When I was twelve or thirteen, I used to plan what I'd wish for if they gave me three wishes. I thought I'd wish, 'I wish that having lived well to the age of eighty-five and having written some very good books, I may die quietly, knowing that all the people I love are happy and in good health.'
She was 88 when she died, and she wrote a great number of incredible books. I hope that the rest of her wish came true as well.
As the biologist descends into the tower, the words that spiral down its walls begin to infect her frame of mind. Formed of living mold, she inhales their spores, and she starts to grasp their terrible meaning: "Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead..."The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors' equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
Though I last read The Left Hand of Darkness some fifteen years ago, it had been on my mind frequently as my first North Dakota winter got underway. As the temperature plummeted to -20°F (feeling even colder with the wind rushing down from the icy north), as the snow piled up in feet, as a simple walk from my car to the grocery store became a race against frostbitten fingers, all I could think about was Genly Ai and Lord Estraven, trekking across the glacier in LeGuin’s most famous novel.
I had already been planning to focus on rereads in 2017. As my nation, as the world, veers drunkenly into ominous and uncharted new dimensions, I’ve been craving the comfort of reading stories whose endings are known, whose dangers have been mapped and rendered tame. But I had forgotten how The Left Hand of Darkness actually ends.
It begins in the capital city Erhenrang, in the nation Karhide, on a planet called Gethen or, more descriptively, Winter. Genly Ai, originally from Earth, has been sent with a mission to invite the Gethenians to join the Ekumen, a galactic alliance of human societies. He comes alone, as Ekumenical Envoys always do, so as not to frighten or antagonize his hosts (“One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion,” he explains.) But, as probably should be expected when inserting oneself into the political sphere of any human nation, Ai soon becomes a tool of multiple factions both within and without Karhide – and none, it seems, have much interest in prostrating themselves before some mythical League of Nations from beyond the stars.
When the Karhidish government, nominally a monarchy but actually a loose federation of diverse tribal groups, falls under the spell of a Trumpian demagogue with unity on his lips and war on his mind, Ai decides to leave Erhenrang and try his luck with Karhide’s major rival. The country of Orgoreyn runs a tight Soviet-style ship; their national motto is “papers please!”, and their secret police love nothing more than to send dissidents and deviants off to the Voluntary Farms, which aren’t exactly farms and certainly aren’t voluntary. It isn’t long before Ai finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong people, and throughout the second half of the book, must escape from a labor camp on foot, across a continent-wide glacier in the dead of winter on a planet so frigid it is named after the ice. His savior and only companion on this expedition is a person named Estraven, the disgraced former Prime Minister of Karhide, who had been exiled as a traitor. S/he is, perhaps, the only truly honorable person on Gethen – certainly the only one Ai ever meets (though, hanging around politicians, I suppose he’s lucky he met even one…)
The book, narrated primarily by Ai, refers to Estraven with male pronouns, but this is something I won’t do in my review. Because Estraven is neither man nor woman. Though “typical” humans in every other way, all Gethenians are androgynes, spending the majority of their lives in a sexless state. Once a month, they enter a period called “kemmer” (heat, rut, estrus), where they, upon finding a partner, take on the characteristics of one or the other sex. In this way, the same individual may be father to one child, mother to another. Genly’s permanent maleness is seen as a perversion by them – being always sexually responsive, how do his people ever get anything done?
It is the gender politics of Gethen – or, really, the lack thereof – that have made The Left Hand of Darkness a classic of feminist science fiction. To me, though, it feels odd to read a “feminist” book where every single character is referred to as “he”. One of things I remember about reading this the first time is how much this bothered me, the consistent use of masculine pronouns. The Ekumen’s (and LeGuin’s?) excuse for writing this way is as follows: “Lacking the Karhidish ‘human pronoun’ used for persons in somer [the sexually inactive state], I must say ‘he,’ for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” And to this I say: bullshit. Masculine pronouns are certainly “defined”, in that if you refer to a person as “he”, I will picture a man. It’s incredibly difficult to train the brain not to. The narrator even acknowledges this, saying: “But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.”
I am not quite sure what to make of LeGuin’s intent here. Although inventing or appropriating a gender-neutral pronoun could potentially be jarring or break the flow of narration, I think it should be a bit jarring to read about a civilization of complete neuters, where we as readers can’t automatically slot any character into one of the two most basic categories we understand: man or woman. In fact, I don’t think it’s even necessary to use a gender-neutral pronoun to do this, as Ann Leckie demonstrated ingeniously in her Ancillary Justice series, where everyone is referred to as “she”. There, though the characters aren’t androgynes, gender is considered irrelevant in the narrator’s culture, and the use of “she” forced me every time it was used to consider that the character in question may identify as male, or female, or neither, and the lack of confirmation was both jarring and refreshing. (It also led to some humorous reviews, where careless readers scoffed at this “society full of lesbians”…)
The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I wrote this all off as LeGuin being unintentionally sexist. I figured, this book was written in the 60’s; maybe just the idea of an androgynous culture was considered radical, and who cared whether they were all called “he” – it was just language, after all. But rereading the book now, I think LeGuin was being subtler than that. The entire novel is infused with Genly Ai’s point of view – even when Gethenians are narrating, Ai is translating. And Ai is a man from Earth, a very 1960’s-ish Earth from what we can tell. It no longer seems to me that LeGuin couldn’t handle gender-neutrality well; rather, Genly Ai can’t.
Ai’s sexism is subtle, but it is definitely there, and as I read through the book this time, examples started to jump out at me. The powerful political leaders that Ai spends most of his time with are referred to as men exclusively, with little thought or cognitive dissonance. It is only when Ai begins to meet downtrodden Gethenians, such as the other inmates at the labor camp, that they begin to seem feminine to him – and always in a negative way. “Among my fellowprisoners I had for the first time on Winter a certain feeling of being a man among women, or among eunuchs. The prisoners had that same flabbiness and coarseness. They were hard to tell apart; their emotional tone seemed always low, their talk trivial.” He speaks later of their “gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.” When Gethenians lose power and prestige, when they lose their very freedom, suddenly they seem womanly to Ai. Later, when Estraven explains why, though s/he loves Karhide, s/he is not a patriot, Ai is again disgusted: “There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me.” Again and again, when Ai encounters any traits in a Gethenian that are not associated with virility, aggressiveness, or authority, he is suddenly reminded that the person before him is not a man, but something lesser, something a bit vulgar. Something feminine.
Ai is not really an unreliable narrator, in the sense of being a liar or a madman, but his biases are insidious, threaded throughout the novel and rarely drawing attention to themselves. It is not that Ai hates women; like many men, he has just not thought much about gender politics. When asked by Estraven, who has never met a woman, whether they are inferior to men, Ai has trouble responding. “No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.” He’s hardly a misogynist; it’s just that a gender studies class would probably do him good. As a character Ai is likable, but he is probably not the ideal individual to lead the reader on this anthropological journey through Gethen. And that is, I think, the point.
One of the themes in this book is cultural misunderstanding – how the same action or trait can be seen in contradictory ways by different civilizations. As this idea is a staple of virtually every first-contact or anthropological science fiction story, I tend to take it for granted by now, but I like how it’s handled here. On their trek across the ice, Estraven and Ai begin to understand each other in ways they never had before; they become friends, and even begin to love each other (in a strictly platonic way, Ai hastens to point out – sex with a Gethenian would just be too weird for him). But they also recognize the ways in which they are too different, too alien, to fully comprehend each other. And they leave it at that. I love Ai’s dawning understanding toward the end of the novel:
“I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.”
This duality, between I and Thou, relates to the title of the novel, which comes from a Gethenian poem: “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one...” Ai thinks that Gethenians are obsessed with the unity of all things because they are sexually undivided; other humans, separated into men and women, are therefore obsessed with duality. But Estraven disagrees: “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”
I’m not sure where to leave this review, other than at that. This book is a classic, and deservedly so. The ending broke my heart in a way I was completely not expecting – how could I remember so many specific plot points from reading this so long ago, but forget how shattering it is in the end? But I was a different person then, and the world was a different place.
Speaking of the world, maybe in the end I can take heart in the quick and absolute downfall of Tibe, the Karhidish Donald Trump. I can take heart in the prevention of total war between Karhide and Orgoreyn. I can take heart in people like Estraven, who love their homelands but are resolutely unpatriotic, who would be happy to serve a good government if they ever could identify one. Maybe there’s hope for us too. Maybe it won’t even require the intervention of a galactic civilization, to remind us how small we really are.
This book has infected my brain. Much the way strange spores disgorged from uncanny pulsing vegetation forming eerie words down a spiral staircase into the void beneath an alien jungle might infect your brain, if you inhaled them.
Which you probably shouldn't do.
This is getting better! The writing is still fairly awful, and the characters read like mannequins that the author is clumsily maneuvering through the narrative, but I'm no longer convinced it's heading toward a stupid twist ending.
Maybe just a moderately lame twist ending. I don't know.
Worldbuilding is still pretty good.