Transgendered science fiction
So, a fortnight ago I went to the Rocky Horror picture show at the Globe* in Brisbane and thought “Why hasn’t anyone reviewed The left hand of darkness for book coasters? We haven’t had any SF as our book of the month yet, and it would be an excellent choice.”
The left hand of darkness is science fiction, but it’s not space opera. An outsider, who is basically meant to be like us (in the sense of being a vision of futuristic man by a female author writing decades ago) goes to a world called Winter as a diplomat. His duty is to try and draw Winter into a new governing structure for all of humankind, although this will mostly be a symbolic thing, because Winter is so far from the rest of the human colonies that trade will be impractical. Winter is a world that’s always cold, hence the name, and its humans have engineered themselves beyond having genders.
This is the interesting part of the world-building in the book: it’s a world where there are no dualities. There’s no summer and winter, no male and female, and arguably no socially accepted right and wrong, but a continuum of values. How, asks the book, could such societies be possible? What would they look like? The societies on Winter have never gone to war, but is this because they are not driven by sublimated desire, or because they are poor? It’s a book that deliberately never comes down on one side on any of these questions, because it’s a book about being comfortable in ambivalence. This makes it a tricky sort of read for people who like narrative closure, because you can read the villains as cunning schemers or madmen, and the book deliberately doesn’t help you work out which is the “true” in the sense of “author approved” read. It’s also not clear if the plot serves the thought experiment or the thought experiment the plot. That’s fine for some readers (Tolkien fans who love the Silmarillion, say) and not for others.
So, an interesting book, particularly for SF aficionados.
(* Cards 4 Sorrow put on a great show, in my opinion. I thought that the swift work with a set of multigrips and some car keys to fix the projector when it broke down partway through was McGuyvering of the highest standard. As one of the “Arrgh the projector has died! Fix it Timothy! Fix it now!” librarians, I must give the professional nod to their technician, who did great work balancing at the top of a precarious ladder using inappropriate tools.)