Review 1510: The Left Hand of Darkness

Best of Ten!
Genly Ai, an envoy to Gethen from the Ekumen, a league of other worlds, has been waiting for an audience with King Argaven XV of Karhide for two years. Although he does not trust Lord Estraven, Argaven’s prime minister, he has understood the prime minister was supporting his efforts to gain an audience. But during a state parade, Lord Estraven tells him it is not a good time.

Genly’s disappointment makes him doubt that Lord Estraven ever had good intentions. When Lord Estraven hints that Genly should leave the capital, Genly ignores him. Soon, he learns that Lord Estraven has been banished from Karhide upon pain of death.

King Argaven encourages Genly to travel around Karhide, and he does so. The planet of Gethen is an ice planet, formerly called Winter by Ekumen, and Genly is constantly cold. He has trouble understanding the Gethenians, who are androgynous; when they are in heat once a month, they take on whichever sex is opposite to that of their partner. Genly has a hard time adjusting to the feminine side of the Gethenians. For their part, they consider him a pervert for always, as they see it, being in heat.

Eventually, Genly decides to leave the more primitive, indirect Karhides for Orgoreyn, an apparently more civilized and direct country, where he is welcomed. This state is much more authoritarian. Whereas in Karhide his presence was known, in Orgoreyn it is being kept secret from all but the government. Soon, the situation takes a turn he doesn’t expect.

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I thought it was about the best book I had ever read. Reading it again, I see no reason to change my mind except to say that others stand up there with it.

It is written as a set of documents, Genly’s story mixed in with records from other envoys and stories from the myths of various cultures on Gethen. It manages to explore many topics with its theme of light and darkness, including the effects on our lives of different sexual orientations. It’s really a masterpiece.

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Day 200: Stranger in a Strange Land

Cover for Stranger in a Strange LandDay 200 for the blog!

First, let me preface this review of Robart A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land by saying that I know this is a cult classic and my review may offend some die-hard Heinlein fans, if I have any readers who are die-hard Heinlein fans. So, let that be your warning.

The first sentence in my notes is “What an overrated book.” I read this novel long, long ago, and I vaguely remember thinking the first part was interesting but disliking the second part. Other than the barest outlines of the plot, that’s all I remembered. This time through, I liked the first part less and hated the second part.

Valentine Michael (Mike) Smith is the only survivor of the first manned mission to Mars. He was born on the mission to two of the astronauts and raised by Martians. Since that mission disappeared without a trace, no one knew he existed, so he is only discovered when a second mission goes to Mars. He is brought back as a young man, and political shenanigans ensue, especially when he turns out to be heir to a fortune. Besides these plot elements, the first portion of the novel deals, sometimes cleverly, with his adjustment to life on Earth. In the second part of the novel, he decides to start his own religion, which practices free love and teaches the psychic abilities he learned from the Martians.

The novel does not translate very well to the 21st century because of its blatant sexism and use of slang that I suspect was out of date when the book was published. The sexism is ironic in a way, because I believe that Heinlein would have thought his book was sexually liberating. Frankly, though, I don’t think that patting your female employees on the butt was considered liberated even in the early 1960’s.

Another criticism is that Heinlein appears to have no coherent vision of what a future world would be like. The novel reads as if he came up with a few ideas that he thought would be cool and interesting but not as if he sat down and imagined what fundamental changes might have taken place. For example, carpets are made of real grass, but he lacks the imagination to figure out that computers wouldn’t always need punch cards and we might not be using typewriters forever. As far as futuristic prescience is concerned, I would give a better grade to Jules Verne. My final point in this regard is that for a science fiction writer, he seems to know very little about science, and I mean the science that was known in his own time.

I think I could bear with these things because I generally have a rule not to judge a book on standards that are not of its own time. But the worst feature of the book for me was the hundreds of pontificating speeches made by Jubal Harshaw, a crusty author who I’m sure is meant to be Heinlein himself. Despite being presented in a conversation style, the speeches are pompous and pedantic and go on for pages and pages. Heinlein seems to be very proud of the ideas expressed and of the world Mike creates with his religion, but I think the environment in his church would give most people the creeps.

I made a good faith effort to finish the book, but I finally gave up less than 50 pages from the end. And if anyone says “grok” to me ever again, I’ll scream.