Synopsis: The spiritual journey of a fixed-gender human who, while living on a world inhabited by humans who alternate between genders, gets caught up in their political schemes and is cast into the wilderness.
Book Review: The first thing I noticed about this book is the writing style. It was published in 1969, and much of that 60s/70s era sci-fi has a distinct style that you can almost taste. It’s a bit more rigid, more formal. It does more telling and less showing in terms of the action that’s happening, but it is less explicit in the points it’s driving to. It feels like the sort of thing Jean-Luc Picard would read while sipping his Early Grey. It wasn’t unenjoyable, simply different. However much of the book is dated – it’s 45 years old now, and it suffers for it. Psyonics was still somewhat-plausible back then, and quite the staple of SF. It’s not the fault of those authors that it’s been thoroughly debunked in the intervening decades, but it’s painful to read it being taken seriously. Soon all the quantum-magic books of the 90s and 00s are going to look the same way to the next generation of readers.
The writing itself is absolutely gorgeous. There are so many breath-taking scenes I don’t even want to get started listing them all. Not only are they exquisite, but they aren’t over-wrought. The trip to the internment camp, where the protagonist bonds with strangers without ever talking to them, only by sharing air and what little water they are given, and by watching two other prisoners slowly die, is emotionally harrowing without being dramatic. It is simple and elegant and utterly compelling. This happens multiple times in the novel.
Unfortunately I never quite understood the point. When I was done I felt a deep melancholy, something within definitely pulled at me. But I couldn’t tell what. The message was so deeply buried/implied that I never caught a glimpse of it. I don’t want things to be garish, but I’ve never been very good with subtlety. If you don’t give me at least a few big clues, I probably won’t catch on.
In addition, this is a book whose mission has been accomplished. I gather that it’s some sort of treatise on gender equality. To me it felt very much like reading a work containing impassioned pleas to consider non-white races as equally human, and maybe abolish slavery. I, and everyone I know of my generation, has already deeply internalized this message. Most of us consider ourselves feminists. I understand this book had an important job in the past, and I can honor those who came before for providing the foundations we now stand on, and respect their great work. However it’s not a book for me. There wasn’t that much to hold my interest. If you are exploring your SF roots and want to read a foundational work, this book is exemplary, and won both the Hugo and Nebula when it was published. But 45 years later, I can’t really recommend it to anyone like me for general reading. Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: This part is a bit harder. There is a fair bit to talk about. It’s interesting that all the alien characters, while supposedly gender-neutral, read as men. Was this a subconscious way of LeGuin expressing that in a world without the restrictions imposed by society and biology the “male” experience is the purer, more agenty one? But the protagonist, despite self-identifying as male and being described as masculine many times, reads like a female character (and it wasn’t just me that thought that). The book’s protagonist is a heroine, despite the male presentation. Is that a comment on the alienation of being a strong woman in a male-dominated world? We were very lucky that one of our book club members is a literary genius and was able to pick up on a lot of subtle points in the book – explaining the “left hand of darkness” metaphor, cultural imperialism vs going native, and a few others. I never would have picked up on those, and it made the discussion far more interesting. Without that, I fear we might have not spent too much time discussing the book itself. If you have a good mix of ages and life-experiences, this could be a good book for your club, and I’d recommend it. If, OTOH, your book club contains only younger readers who never experienced in-your-face old-school sexism, I would not. The world has changed. Which is for the better.