This is one of those classics that I have been meaning to read for years and years and just never have. It’s a bit sad, really, considering how much of a fantasy/sci-fi fan I am, though to be fair, I do lean more fantasy than sci-ci. Regardless, Le Guin is an institution on par with Octavia Butler (who I also just read for the first time, finally, late last year) and it’s about time to got around to reading something by her. In this case, I would like to shout out to my local book club, for making this book the November choice and pushing me into it.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Genly Ai is a human ambassador to the planet of Winter. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s joining of an intergalactic organization that seems (at least to me) to be like the United Nations of space. However, as with all ambassadorships, he must deal with cultural and physiological differences that threaten to be more powerful than his mission can overcome. And yet, through some incredibly trying circumstances that forge a strong bond of friendship between himself and Estreven, a citizen of Winter who believes in his message of inter-planetary sharing of ideas and technology, Genly may yet achieve his objective.
There is a blurb on the back of this book that compares Le Guin’s world-building and imagination to that of Tolkein’s. And though I think there are enough differences (fantasy versus sci-fi for one, and concerns about comparing a female genius as “approaching” a male genius as a dangerous conceptualization for another) to make this a potentially problematic comparison, I do agree that, as classics in their genres, they can be considered equally impressive as far as development of new worlds and exploration of human traits through recognizable, yet completely foreign, characters. And to that end, I would like to just say, for the record, that I was completely wow-ed by this novel. It’s depth and intensity and complexity were mind-boggling. And even more impressive is the way that Le Guin was able to communicate such foreign-ness as there exists on Winter in a way that is digestible and follow-able and philosophically fascinating stands in stark contrast to many similarly “epic” works of fantasy/sci-fi (particularly notable for me, having just finished Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – review coming soon – and being completely overwhelmed/relieved at the end of it). Although, as with all otherworldly fiction, there is an adjustment period upon starting the novel, as the reader adjusts to the new vocabulary and context of the story, this novel quickly took on a pace and movement that pulled me right along with it. As it’s written from the POV of an ambassador, it’s very much like an anthropological and ethnological study of a people, which was both incredibly interesting and at times, to be honest/fair in this review, a bit dry. However, once the relationship between Genly and Estraven is truly revealed to be a central aspect of the story, and my comfort level with the world of Winter and its two competing “countries” at the center of the plot steadied out (around a third of the way through the novel), my investment was solid and assured. And as such, when a key event towards the end occurs suddenly, I was absolutely deeply rocked – it was so unexpected and quick! I don’t actually even think I noticed how invested I was until then. The observational tone of beginning took a slow-roll perspective change and thus, an unrecognized onset of “caring,” if you will, in myself as the reader. Anyways, the way that event quite suddenly happened, and hit me hard, was (as a reader who likes to be affected by what they read) awesome, if tragic.
This is such an interesting “plot” to review, as it seemed to me that while the blurb about the book does describe the bigger picture of the novel, the intimate details, and the page-turning developments, happen more in the life and interactions of Genly and Estraven. This is such a fantastic literary device, as it makes the universal more personal for the reader, as well as allowing for deeper exploration of the way the worlds will interact on a large-scale, as we see how representatives from their separate peoples interact on a smaller level. It definitely demonstrates Le Guin’s mastery of her craft. This is even further evidenced by her ability to develop that relationship while simultaneously showing the reader minutiae of the physical world (the mountains and glaciers and freezing temperatures – everything that sets the environmental scene) and the cultural landscape (in general and in how it differs, sometimes dramatically so, between the countries of Winter).
One other thing that I really want to point out is Le Guin’s explorations of gender. In one of the more subtly innovative ways I’ve ever seen it done, at the very least fictionally, Le Guin deconstructs our binary “duality” of gender. Though Winter’s people, a genderfluid society (both physiologically and psychologically), Le Guin can take an outsider’s view of gender norms and biases and differences. And Genly’s attempts to explain it, and his slow but steadily growing accustomization to Winter’s people’s fluidity, shine a light on how ridiculous many socially-imposed gender norms truly are. It’s undeniably enlightened, yet presented in such a way that it’s completely accessible to the non-philosophically inclined (like myself). This is not uncommon for great fantasy and sci-fi, to challenge socially accepted norms in a way that is perhaps easier to stomach because it’s set in such foreign environs. And yet, its impossible not to extrapolate, at least in thought experiments, the way the concepts could be applied in our own world. And I think it’s something that fantasy/sci-fi writers do not get enough credit for. Long story short, awesome study of gender and sexuality and the way its roles/possibilities play out in societal implications.
I am sorry it took me this long to read Le Guin, because there is no way to ignore what about her writing made it classic. It’s so smooth, escapist and intellectual in equal measure. If you are a fantasy/sci-fi reader and you have yet to give Le Guin a try, don’t be like me, don’t wait any longer, go grab a book by her now!
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
“A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”
“‘Tell me, how does the other sex of your race differ from yours?’ […] ‘…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. In most societies, it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. […] It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.’”
“In the end when we are done, the sun will devour itself and shadow will eat light, and there will be nothing left but the ice and the darkness.” (This is from the Orgota Creation Myth, which was one of my favorite little sections…it had the perfect weird, slightly creepy, beautifully simple, rendered in that mystical-yet-matter-of-fact tone that all similar creation/religious myths have. Plus, there was some really cool symmetry and connection within it. Loved it.)
“And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?”