I have just finished reading one of the classics of Sci-Fi, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Written in 1969 and winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards, it’s the story of Winter, an Earth-like planet with two major differences. First, the conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest times of the year. And second, the inhabitants are all of the same gender (and sexless) except at a certain time of the month when they can morph into male or female depending on their partner at that time.
The planet’s settled existence is disturbed when an envoy from space brings news of a vast coalition of planets which Winter is invited to join. This human envoy, fixedly male, is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief. The story meanders somewhat for the first 150 pages as the author paints a scholarly picture of the politics, religion and geography of the planet. World building with this much detail, at that time, had been rare. Frank Herbert had done it with Dune (I’ll come back to this later), but he at least had kept the protagonists human.
Towards the end of the story, the envoy called Genly Ai, is kidnapped and taken to a remote prison camp. With the help of a native, Estraven, he escapes and must make a gruelling trek across hundreds of miles of glacier at the worst time of year. The plot tension and pace picks up greatly at this point and it’s during this intensely claustrophobic phase of punishing walks and sharing a tiny tent that the author explores the nature of sexuality and gender equality.
For scope and imagination, it’s a great piece of writing. Inevitably when reading a book that is nearly 50 years old, the style seems a bit prosaic and indulgent. Last year, I recommended Dune to my Sci-Fi and Fantasy reading group having read it numerous times as a teenager. Coming back to it now, I still love the plot and the whole space opera of the great Houses, the Guild and the Bene Gesserit. But my female-dominated group, reading it now, struggled with the style and the male-centric universe that the author had created. (I must admit I had failed to even notice that last point reading it as a teenage boy.) Ironic, given the nature of Ursula LeGuin’s exploration of sexuality!
But it just goes to show how much style changes through the years. In another 50 years time, I wonder what readers will think of the books we’re writing these days?