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Old 01-15-2019, 10:42 PM   #16
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I am in furious agreement with the opinions of others. I found the first section quite tedious, but I loved the latter half of the book. Things really picked up for me when Genly was arrested, and I thought the building of the relationship, the growth of understanding between the Genly and Therem/Estraven, their empathy and love, was wonderful.

Interestingly, I read this book many years ago, and it was the relationship that I remembered about it, and caused me to rate it very highly. I had completely forgotten all the tedious world-building stuff of the first half. So my apologies to Catlady if you are still reading - I said it didn't have that stuff in it because I genuinely didn't remember it at all. Now I'm unsure whether it is something that Le Guin dropped in later books, or if it is there and I have forgotten it. I must have a look when I have time.

To finish this post on a positive note, another thing I loved was the references to Taoism. Indeed, it led me to get my copy of the Tao Te Ching off the bookshelf and I am currently rereading it.
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Old 01-16-2019, 02:14 AM   #17
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[...] And I never really got the whole honour code thing that a lot of the plot depends on.
Yes, I did feel as if the "shifgrethor" thing could have done with a bit more elaboration. I'm not sure whether Le Guin left it this vague deliberately, so that the reader should feel as lost as Genly ... but then, since Genly appears to come to some sort of understanding by the end, I felt as I though I should too, and I didn't, or not that I could express. Which maybe brings us back to that that saying in words what can't be said in words? Or ...

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[...]
The gender issue does hit quite hard at the very end when Genly suddenly sees his own race from the perspective of the people of Winter. This was a direct result of the depth of his relationship with Estraven.
I really liked that part of the ending, Genly seeing his own people as foreign, but I interpreted it a bit differently. It seemed to me an expression of what I felt to be the core of this story: that ultimately it wasn't gender differences that set people apart, it was a lack of familiarity. That Genly can empathise so much with the Gethenians, at the end, I think is a hopeful message.
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Old 01-16-2019, 05:59 AM   #18
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Yes, I did feel as if the "shifgrethor" thing could have done with a bit more elaboration. I'm not sure whether Le Guin left it this vague deliberately, so that the reader should feel as lost as Genly ... but then, since Genly appears to come to some sort of understanding by the end, I felt as I though I should too, and I didn't, or not that I could express. Which maybe brings us back to that that saying in words what can't be said in words? Or ...
On the way to work this morning I listened to an old Slate Book Club podcast about this book. (It's no longer available or I'd link to it, but I still had the episode on my phone)

They mentioned shifgrethor in passing and in a way that assumed it was obvious what it meant once one understood that shifgrethor was derived from the word for "shadow". I remembered that there is that scene in the book where Genly is told this and it's like he suddenly understands.

The other thing that I found interesting about the podcast was that they acknowledged a lot of the same weaknesses but seemed to put them on the character of Genly. i.e. "the book was well written, Genly was a sexist jerk" They also seemed to think that LeGuin felt the average SciFi fan was a "white male engineer" and that Genly was supposed to allow that kind of person a way in. So to go back to what issybird was saying it was LeGuin projecting what she thought a certain kind of man thinks.

They also talked a little about LeGuin's Daoism and how that possibly influenced some of the gender essentialism that seems to be there. I don't really know anything about Daoism but apparently it's very big on binaries - yin/yang, male/female, dark/light?
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:19 AM   #19
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Explaining isn't the right word. She didn't try to explain the book in the introduction (thankfully) but she was trying to explain why the book was written as it was and the tone was defensive.
This is one of my pet peeves, when authors feel as if they have to explain or defend what they were trying to do. I wish they'd let it go. I'm a firm believer in letting a book stand on its own merits and open to whatever interpretation, pass or fail, readers give it. And as you say, it was a prize winner!

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Oh and the scenes on the farm? Grim.
Overall, I thought the book was too evocative of recent (in real terms) history, as if she just lifted it. The farm evoked the extermination camps of the Holocaust, the border crossing Berlin, and so forth. It didn't come across as organic to me.

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I did read in one of the three introductions in my copy, that LeGuin intended the masculine pronouns to stand for generic ones and later regretted it. I do think it would have made it more striking if the Winter natives were constantly referred to as they/them or something. It would have jarred in a good way.
Yes. By using masculine pronouns, Le Guin made maleness the baseline. It was a poor choice and illogical, too, in a book sprinkled with Gethenian words when a Terran word would have been an exact, or nearly exact, translation. It's akin to dialogue that reminds you it's purportedly in a different language or the person has an accent by having a character say things like "Ah, oui!" and then going on to use four-syllable English words.

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**(it would have helped if the section at the end of the book about the days of the week and months and so on were at the beginning not the end. The first chapter of Estraven's journal I thought the bits in italics were other characters, that he was describing their place in the hierarchy. It took about 3 pages to realise they were days.)
That was something else that bored or confused just to create atmosphere. I did snicker a bit that while coming up with this whole new calendar and in a book set in the far future, Genly still gave the temperatures in Fahrenheit! I prefer Fahrenheit myself for day to day use and not only because it's still current here, but not in a scientific context.
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:29 AM   #20
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That was something else that bored or confused just to create atmosphere. I did snicker a bit that while coming up with this whole new calendar and in a book set in the far future, Genly still gave the temperatures in Fahrenheit! I prefer Fahrenheit myself for day to day use and not only because it's still current here, but not in a scientific context.
Yes the temperature thing amused me too. I tend to think in Centigrade because that's been what the TV weather reports have used here most of my life, so I had to convert in my head. But "very cold" and "extremely cold" would have done just as well.
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:37 AM   #21
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[...] They mentioned shifgrethor in passing and in a way that assumed it was obvious what it meant once one understood that shifgrethor was derived from the word for "shadow". I remembered that there is that scene in the book where Genly is told this and it's like he suddenly understands.

The other thing that I found interesting about the podcast was that they acknowledged a lot of the same weaknesses but seemed to put them on the character of Genly. i.e. "the book was well written, Genly was a sexist jerk" They also seemed to think that LeGuin felt the average SciFi fan was a "white male engineer" and that Genly was supposed to allow that kind of person a way in. So to go back to what issybird was saying it was LeGuin projecting what she thought a certain kind of man thinks.

They also talked a little about LeGuin's Daoism and how that possibly influenced some of the gender essentialism that seems to be there. I don't really know anything about Daoism but apparently it's very big on binaries - yin/yang, male/female, dark/light?
Estraven does say early on, "I’m not anyone’s servant. A man must cast his own shadow....". Later we have the legend of Getheren who in the end says, "Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow." There is a very similar line during the foretelling chapter.

It's obviously all related to the creation legend in chapter 17: "Each of the children born to them had a piece of darkness that followed him about wherever he went by daylight."

Which is all very neat and tidy, I quite like it, but doesn't actually reveal much about how shifgrethor works as a system of honour. I'd also add that "shadow" gets quite a lot of use through the text, and not all uses have that same significance.

The problem I have with the revelation scene in chapter 18 is that the misunderstanding is clear enough (whether explained as shifgrethor or simply looked at from the reader's outside view), but its relationship to gender is not so clear.

And I definitely agree that Le Guin's treatment of gender as a binary state while still creating this ambisexual people who so obviously aren't one or the other is a real problem with the story. In Le Guin's essay about this book she speaks of exploring gender by removing it, but she has not done so. Instead she has created a third gender, one that is neither male nor female but something other. And just as we might speak of a man having certain (generalised) feminine attributes, and a woman may have certain (generalised) male attributes, so this third gender can be seen to have these attributes too, but to see it as only a "manwoman" seems to underestimate the situation.

However, if I ignore what has been said (by Le Guin and others) and just go by what I read, then I would have concluded that it is Genly who has made the error. And in this light I think the book mostly works. As issybird has observed about other books, and again just now as I was writing this it seems , it is sometimes better if the author just shuts up and lets the work speak for itself - and I think this one does that quite well.

On the plus side, having Le Guin's ambisexual people as something "other" makes some of the other possible problems more forgivable. For example the absence of war seems like a big thing to lay on strictly male/female gender differences. I can accept it as a consequence of their particular social arrangements of these alien people (arrangements still under flux). And the fact that these people were, apparently, experiments from the distant past also gives Le Guin the escape clause that the particular arrangements did not have to pass evolutionary constraints in order to have come about.

I never got the sense that Le Guin expected us to see Genly as a "sexist jerk". I think this is very much something imposed by those reading the book with their own agenda. Young and naive, yes, I think Genly is guilty of that. It does seem that Le Guin imposes her own idea of what men think, and generalises about what it means to be a woman in a way that I don't think would hold up to much scrutiny. But I will say that a lot of science fiction of that era is similarly naive, so while I agree these were less than elegant impositions to the story, they are not entirely unexpected in a book of this age.
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:37 AM   #22
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The use of "he" throughout amused me enormously. It was a poor choice for all the reasons many have outlined above, but it amused me because English has had a perfectly usable, and much-used, epicene 3rd person singular pronoun for centuries. But use of "they" would have had Le Guin crucified much more surely than any diatribe against patriarchy would have.

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Old 01-16-2019, 08:53 AM   #23
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The problem I have with the revelation scene in chapter 18 is that the misunderstanding is clear enough (whether explained as shifgrethor or simply looked at from the reader's outside view), but its relationship to gender is not so clear.
Was it? Could you explain it to me then? What was the nature of the misunderstanding and how does it clarify shifgrethor?

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I never got the sense that Le Guin expected us to see Genly as a "sexist jerk".
No I don't think she does. But the person speaking on the podcast, author Charlie Jane Anders, found him so but still liked the book.
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Old 01-16-2019, 10:06 AM   #24
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Was it? Could you explain it to me then? What was the nature of the misunderstanding and how does it clarify shifgrethor? [...]
I'll try.

First, as to shifgrethor, the clearest examples of how it works (although I don't really expect this is comprehensive) relates to advice. It seems that shifgrethor is such that a person does not expect to receive nor give advice until explicitly given permission, and even then the advice may be given in a circuitous manner in order to avoid offence. Some examples follow:

Bear in mind that King Argaven is acknowledged as insane when you read this quote from Ch3:
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Let me give you some advice.” Argaven said this with curious emphasis and satisfaction, and even then it occurred to me that nobody else, in two years, had ever given me advice. They answered questions, but they never openly gave advice, not even Estraven at his most helpful. It must have to do with shifgrethor.
And from the "landlady, a voluble man" in Ch5:
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And so on. He was, as I said, voluble, and having discovered that I had no shifgrethor took every chance to give me advice, though even he disguised it with ifs and as-ifs.
I find this a curious inconsistency that the landlady is painted as enjoying giving advice, when surely something so ingrained as shifgrethor would have eliminated this urge. (The insane king, above, gets a pass on this complaint.)

In ch10 Estraven bends enough to try and give advice but its reticence means Genly does not receive the advice well. In fact it appears to rub Genly the wrong way, because Genly already sees Extraven as a traitor both to Genly and to Estraven's own country.

In Ch11 Estraven speaks of his relationship with Obsle:
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I think that I, a foreigner, am the only person Obsle trusts. He has some pleasure in my company (as I in his), and several times has waived shifgrethor and frankly asked my advice. But when I urge him to speak out, to raise public interest as a defense against factional intrigue, he does not hear me.

Given such a situation, you can imagine that Estraven's position as the "King's Ear" is indeed precarious: how do you advise a King when advice is so tightly entwined with honourable behaviour. This may make Estraven particularly sensitive to shifgrethor.

So the opening problem that first turns Genly away from Estraven is that Estraven had seemed to be sponsoring Genly's cause, but then, abruptly, appears to cast Genly away. Genly feels betrayed, and is convinced Estraven is acting only for Estraven's own benefit - he does not understand the subtle and sensitive relationship between the King the and King's Ear.

However, Estraven expects Genly to know what is going on, and doesn't offer advice because Genly doesn't ask for it. (Is this Le Guin saying that men refuse to ask for directions? ) Estraven's actions are in fact taking risks on itself in an attempt to save Genly's cause. From Ch14:
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Have failed. And have put you in pain, and shame, and danger. I know it. But if I had tried to fight Tibe for your sake, you would not be here now, you’d be in a grave in Erhenrang. And there are now a few people in Karhide, and a few in Orgoreyn, who believe your story, because they listened to me. They may yet serve you. My greatest error was, as you say, in making myself clear to you. I am not used to doing so. I am not used to giving, or accepting, either advice or blame.
Notice that "blame" inserted in there too. I haven't researched that aspect, this post is long enough. It is curious that we have this explanation in ch14 but Genly doesn't really get it until ch18 - as if there is something about seeing the woman in Estraven that finally makes it clear to Genly ... but I'm not sure why that should be. (Is Le Guin suggesting that "never give or accept advice" is a feminine attribute? Or that Genly thinks this even if Le Guin doesn't?)

Genly's reaction in the early parts of the book seems to deny everything Estraven thinks of as honourable (how can Genly not appreciate what was done for him?), while Genly feels betrayed. And so we have a chasm open between them and a lot of what follows - until their journey over the ice - only exacerbates the problem because each is already inclined to think the worst of the other.

Or that's my reading of it. I'm not saying I've covered it all.
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Old 01-16-2019, 11:51 AM   #25
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Thanks gmw.

I understand what you've written but what I still don't get, which is on LeGuin/me not you, is how this is all supposed to suddenly make sense once the key word "shadow" is dropped in the mix. Or as you say, seeing Estraven as woman either.

Also, in the passage in 18, the issue arises because Estraven suddenly goes quiet and Genly decides to tackle it explicitly, saying he thinks it's because of shifgrethor which he acknowledges he doesn't get. AFICS it's never really resolved what Estraven's silence was about.

Unless it's as crass as:

- Estraven goes silent
- Genly thinks, "something's up", asks "what's up?"
- Genly "sees" Estraven as having a female aspect (apparently for the first time)
- Genly thinks "oh I get it, women do this (go silent for no reason) and Estraven sometimes acts like a woman"

surely it's not that?
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Old 01-16-2019, 01:34 PM   #26
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I am in furious agreement with the opinions of others. I found the first section quite tedious, but I loved the latter half of the book. Things really picked up for me when Genly was arrested, and I thought the building of the relationship, the growth of understanding between the Genly and Therem/Estraven, their empathy and love, was wonderful.
Funny, I did not enjoy the back half of the book at all. It feel like the Jack London male journey through desolation, just with one instead of two. I was not particularly entranced or enamored of the relationship as it felt thin to me. Honestly, I felt the same way I do reading other male-bonding narratives. Maybe it was LeGuin's use of the male pronouns or just the lack of much communication, but I did not see the deep bond that many did.

Again, I wonder how much of this is due to my coming to the text without ever having read it before. Zero nostalgia factor for me.
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Old 01-16-2019, 05:40 PM   #27
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It’s hard to know how much of a part nostalgia plays with a reread. However, I was very involved with that growing relationship, and I grieved when Estraven died in Genly’s arms.

On shifgrethor, I found two useful quotes in a quite long Wikipedia article. George Shesser describes it as:
Quote:
Not rank, but its opposite, the ability to maintain equality in any relationship, and to do so by respecting the person of the other.
Carrie B McWhorter is quoted as saying it is:
Quote:
a sense of honour and respect that provides the Gethenians with a way to save face in a time of crisis.
I’m not sure about the second definition, but I like the first one. Giving unsolicited advice is assuming I know better than the other person what s/he should do. (And maybe that term would have worked better for us, by the way.) Not to give advice unless specifically asked to do so is treating the other as an equal.
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:02 PM   #28
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I think nostalgia adds a willingness to accept. When you're new to the work more rides on the author's ability to capture your imagination with the story, and I can easily see how the first half of this book may fail to do that, so by the second half one could easily be disenchanted and so less accepting. (I'm not suggesting fault here, on either side. By "accepting" all I mean is an inclination to forgive, ignore or not see the faults. I've always found that I'm happier to ignore faults when I'm enjoying the ride.)

Bookpossum, that quote defining shifgrethor as the opposite of rank seems neat way to express it. I don't think the story ever really justifies this as a feminine attribute - which I don't mind, I don't think it needs to be a specifically feminine attribute, but it does seem to be expected, especially as regards Genly's revelation toward the end of their journey.
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:17 PM   #29
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I think nostalgia adds a willingness to accept. When you're new to the work more rides on the author's ability to capture your imagination with the story, and I can easily see how the first half of this book may fail to do that, so by the second half one could easily be disenchanted and so less accepting.

I had never read the book, so had no nostalgic baggage, but for me, the world-building at the beginning was the best bit of the book. Then again, for the majority of the 18 times I read LotR I spent more time in the appendices than the story, so I may be an outlier.

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Originally Posted by bookpossum
the other person what s/he should do. (And maybe that term would have worked better for us, by the way
This made me smile, because just minutes before reading it, I'd been thinking of the inexplicable antipathy so many have to acknowledging that "they" is a perfectly valid epicene singular pronoun and how the alternative is for the s/h/it to hit the fan, as it were.
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Old 01-16-2019, 08:31 PM   #30
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[...] Also, in the passage in 18, the issue arises because Estraven suddenly goes quiet and Genly decides to tackle it explicitly, saying he thinks it's because of shifgrethor which he acknowledges he doesn't get. AFICS it's never really resolved what Estraven's silence was about.
On its own, Estraven's silence could simply have been that it was tired and didn't feel like talking. Surely this is something everyone feels at various times. However a bit later in that scene we have:
Quote:
[Estraven] explained, stiffly and simply, that he was in kemmer and had been trying to avoid me, insofar as one of us could avoid the other. “I must not touch you,” he said, with extreme constraint
So there is sexual tension here. It's a very strong tension on Estraven's part because (we know from prior explanation) that kemmer involves very strong compulsion, and that the gender change during kemmer is driven partly by the company, so we would assume Estraven is becoming the female aspect of kemmer. Silence seems an appropriate part of the self-constraint required.

That Genly might have a revelation about the nature of gender on Gethen at this point seems okay, but how this helps to understand shifthregor is still unclear to me.
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