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Old 01-21-2019, 12:28 AM   #76
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I read it within a week of it being selected, but stopped commenting here because I had nothing further to add. As a story, it was mehdiocre for me, the parts of it that interested me enough to trudge through the book are the parts that held the least interest for most participants in this thread, so, in the wise words of David Byrne, "when I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed. Say something once, why say it again?"
Apologies stuartjmz: I wasn't clear. I meant was anyone still reading the thread, rather than still reading the book. Obviously people are!
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Old 01-21-2019, 09:51 AM   #77
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One thing I especially like about China Miéville's introduction (in my edition of this book) is the opening paragraph:
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THE UNLUCKIEST BOOKS ARE THOSE IGNORED OR FORGOTTEN. But spare a thought too for those fated to become classics. A classic is too often a volume that everyone thinks they know. ‘Classic-ness’ can be a gilded cage, constraining a live book’s unruly pages. It can be preserving fluid, or a sumptuous coffin.
The more I read of other's opinions of Le Guin's work, the more apt I find Miéville's introduction. The Wikipedia article (as just one example) has so many people saying so many things about this book, things that I'm not so sure are really there, or even if they are, many aren't really that original or specific to this story. So it does seem to me that the critics and commentators (Miéville included*) have wrapped this work in a sumptuous propaganda to extent that the original tale is obscured almost to the point of irrelevance.

This book didn't say all that stuff, but what it did do was open up a dialogue. It didn't break the ground, it just laid it bare, faults and all. And I think the faults are actually part of the book's success (in terms of gaining classic status). A truly ground-breaking novel may have alienated at least half the possible audience (at that time) and reduced its impact, but this flawed composition - arriving at the right time - got people talking about it, until eventually the book became the conversation and the conversation became the book.

In that perspective I see a similarity between The Left Hand of Darkness and The Three Musketeers: what the stories have become in the public view is now quite different to what was intended when written.


I have read A Game of Thrones (just that first book), but aside from the winter setting (in part of it) I don't really see much else to relate the two ... maybe I need to read more of the books to see it? (I'd rather not.) But I guess most famous books might be said to influence what comes later, even if only by the simple fact of so many people having read them.


* How can one read Miéville's introduction and not be on the watch out for "The King was pregnant." when reading the book? To the extent that by the time it arrived it was anticlimactic. So it's pregnant, so what? That line, while undoubtedly (very mildly) amusing, doesn't arrive at a point where its terribly significant or surprising. If Miéville hadn't told me about I would hardly have noticed. And so the commentators affect how we view the book.

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Old 01-21-2019, 12:06 PM   #78
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This book didn't say all that stuff, but what it did do was open up a dialogue. It didn't break the ground, it just laid it bare, faults and all. And I think the faults are actually part of the book's success (in terms of gaining classic status). A truly ground-breaking novel may have alienated at least half the possible audience (at that time) and reduced its impact, but this flawed composition - arriving at the right time - got people talking about it, until eventually the book became the conversation and the conversation became the book.
I think this is spot-on. Being flawed made it both accessible and fun to dissect, both of which would augment its popularity with the common reader as opposed to just the critical and academic reader. It's a tough target; a book can't be just popular. Eventually the critics have to weigh in to label a book "classic."

I know I said this in The Scarlet Pimpernel discussion, that I'd once read a comment by the poet Kenneth Rexroth that books followed a trajectory that went from popular to dated to classic (assuming they made it to classic status). I think Left Hand while undoubtedly a classic, is also still on the cusp of dated; it hasn't got to the point where its assumptions have ceased to matter.

Having read nothing else by Le Guin (and unlikely to), I wonder to what extent she was good and to what extent she was lucky, in tune with (actually, slightly ahead of) the zeitgeist and benefiting from good timing. Certainly she's lucky in that the message was interesting enough to her contemporary readers that they were engaged with a text that current readers seem to find dull in execution for the first half of the book. That's where being classic gets people to push through.
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Old 01-21-2019, 05:09 PM   #79
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I have read a number of her books, though mostly many years ago. I liked her for the compassion and empathy of her books, as is demonstrated by the second half of this book, and the more interesting parts of the first half, such as the different societies, their religions and their politics.

Now of course I am unsure of how much “technical” stuff there was in those other books, which I have forgotten as I had forgotten it in this book. However, I think it was her characters’ relationships with each other, rather than with their spaceships and gizmos, that made her work stand out from the crowd.

Also, she did not write exclusively in the SF genre by any means. The famous Earthsea books are fantasy, Lavinia is historical/mythical fiction, she wrote poetry, essays, books for children, and I don’t know what else.
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Old 01-22-2019, 02:23 AM   #80
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I think zeitgeist is an appropriate description. In 1969 I think the time was ripe - possibly overdue - for a discussion of this nature, just as the time was ripe for there to be more women writing science fiction. I also think that only a woman author could have written a book that would inspire this particular discussion. Then along comes Ursula K. Le Guin: right gender, right skill-set, right upbringing and interests. She was lucky to be that right person at the right time, but it's arguable that we were lucky that someone of her character was the one that took up the challenge. Someone more extreme would likely have turned people away, someone less bold would have been pushed around.

Some sci-fi novels of around that time I find truly laborious to get through. (Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth (1975) anyone?) I think that sci-fi was still growing out of the short-story home of its most recent past and wasn't always getting it right ... or maybe people were more patient then . Certainly the expectations were different.

I also agree with Bookpossum's sentiments. Even in my younger days of sci-fi enthusiasm, I tended to gravitate to Asimov rather than Clarke (for example), because Asimov (appeared to have) placed a greater importance on (what I think of as) the human elements of the story. And I enjoyed Le Guin for similar reasons though I have not found the stories themselves to be as memorable. Which is to say that I don't find that human element to be a distinguishing feature of Le Guin's work, others had it too, but it was one of the reasons why I enjoyed her stories. The fact that Le Guin's work spanned both sci-fi and fantasy (amongst other things), as my own interests did, probably helped.
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Old 01-22-2019, 08:22 AM   #81
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Speaking personally, I'll never be able to appreciate Le Guin in the context of the literature. It's a gaping hole that won't be filled. What both Bookpossum and gmw say about the personal element resonates with me, though. One exception to my overall lack of interest in sci-fi is that I do enjoy dystopian fic and for exactly that reason; it focuses on the people rather than the gizmos. Obviously there are dystopias set in an entirely human and recognizable world and nothing wrong with that, but the SF element also allows for wider exploration.

But then, I don't like "action" books (or films) either. I don't care if they're shooting each other up with an AK-47 or a whizzbot; it's not for me.
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Old 01-23-2019, 12:04 AM   #82
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If you don't typically enjoy action/thriller stories then just moving the setting between historical, contemporary, science fiction or fantasy is not really going to change much. A light sabre is just a magic sword by another name.

But where science fiction is the exploration of ideas (what I consider to be the raison d'être for sci-fi even though this covers only a small percentage of the work called sci-fi), I would like to think it is potentially enjoyable by most people with an interest in the particular subject. So a person need not like all sci-fi to find that they like particular pieces that match their own interest. The Left Hand of Darkness explores gender, which makes it potentially interesting to a wider audience. The fact that the first half drags has nothing to do with the idea being explored (and a lot, I think, to do with the expectations of that time).
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Old 01-23-2019, 01:36 AM   #83
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Jumping back to an early comment:
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Originally Posted by astrangerhere View Post
And, of course, there were the passing references to us pesky gays as deviants, even in the non-gendered world of Winter.
I'm not quite done (maybe there's some in the part I haven't finished, hopefully tomorrow) but I didn't see any reference I would take as derogatory to gays. The closest I remember is this passage.
Quote:
If there are exceptions, resulting in kemmer-partners of the same sex, they are so rare as to be ignored.
I took that to mean that Le Guin didn't want to deal with that particular topic in this book, she was already diving in enough with what she did include, so she set it up to be a non-issue on Winter. That said, given the cultures of Winter, I doubt a same-sex kemmer partner would be an issue. Unusual, yes but just due to their biology, but nothing beyond that.
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Old 01-23-2019, 06:58 AM   #84
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But where science fiction is the exploration of ideas (what I consider to be the raison d'être for sci-fi even though this covers only a small percentage of the work called sci-fi), I would like to think it is potentially enjoyable by most people with an interest in the particular subject.
I agree with this. My personal comfort level is proportional to how recognizable the world is, but I appreciate that some level of alt is necessary for some themes.

It's the "small percentage" that you cite that makes it a difficult genre for me. Plus laziness, of course; as I suspect with most of us by now, we have our routines and we stick to them. But searching through a particular literature to find the nuggets, from my point of view, doesn't seem that rewarding. If someone who knows my tastes recommended something strongly, I'd probably give it a try. I like pushing my boundaries at least a little.

So, and I hope this has been clear, not only am I glad to have read this, I did enjoy it. I found even the first part interesting if somewhat slow-going and it was a good yarn overall. It was challenging in a good way. It gets high marks for concept, somewhat lower for execution. So it goes. There are few perfect books out there. (In fact, I'm grieved to note that I started this year off with several duds, and not including this. My three star rating for Left Hand at Goodreads is higher than my average on the year so far.)
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Old 01-23-2019, 09:15 AM   #85
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Jumping back to an early comment:

I'm not quite done (maybe there's some in the part I haven't finished, hopefully tomorrow) but I didn't see any reference I would take as derogatory to gays. The closest I remember is this passage.

I took that to mean that Le Guin didn't want to deal with that particular topic in this book, she was already diving in enough with what she did include, so she set it up to be a non-issue on Winter. That said, given the cultures of Winter, I doubt a same-sex kemmer partner would be an issue. Unusual, yes but just due to their biology, but nothing beyond that.
It is more the way the Ekumen views homosexuals. While homosexuality is a strange oddity on Gethen (and implicitly falls into the category of the Perverts), what bothers me more is how it is viewed by the Ekumen. Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary. Is this how the glorious Ekumen has evolved?

This is from Ada: A Journal of New Media, Gender and Technology -

Quote:
Le Guin apologetically acknowledges that she locked Gethenians into heterosexuality. She states that this was based on a “naively pragmatic view of sex,” and asserts that homosexual activities would transpire on Gethen and that, without a rigidly gendered society, homosexual practices would be widely accepted. This admission is likely in response to more recent criticism of the 1980s like the article “Again, The Left Hand of Darkness: Androgyny or Homophobia?” by Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith, published just two years prior to “Redux.”
I'm not blaming her for not going the one step further in being radical on heteronormative issues. I agree with others that it likely would have narrowed her audience further and risked shelving the book. But it is one of the reasons why it does not age well for me.

(It does irk me a little that she went into recovery mode a bit in response to criticism. This sounds much like JK Rowling's insistence after the completion of publication that Dumbledore was gay.)
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Old 01-23-2019, 09:33 AM   #86
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Has anyone else read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas? It's also by LeGuin but is a short story rather than a novel.

I just realised I had a similar experience with it as with The Left Hand of Darkness. It contains a strong central philosophical "what if?" question which I knew before I read it, and it left me feeling like it hadn't explored that question in much more detail.

It's worth reading, especially I think if you haven't been spoilt about the premise.
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Old 01-23-2019, 10:08 AM   #87
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Has anyone else read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas? It's also by LeGuin but is a short story rather than a novel. [...]
Yes, I have read it. It was neatly done, I thought.
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Old 01-23-2019, 10:10 AM   #88
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Has anyone else read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas? It's also by LeGuin but is a short story rather than a novel.

I just realised I had a similar experience with it as with The Left Hand of Darkness. It contains a strong central philosophical "what if?" question which I knew before I read it, and it left me feeling like it hadn't explored that question in much more detail.

It's worth reading, especially I think if you haven't been spoilt about the premise.
Didn't she talk in the introduction about many great books being "thought experiments" that resulted from asking "What if such and such were so?"
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Old 01-23-2019, 10:30 AM   #89
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It is more the way the Ekumen views homosexuals. While homosexuality is a strange oddity on Gethen (and implicitly falls into the category of the Perverts), what bothers me more is how it is viewed by the Ekumen. Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary. Is this how the glorious Ekumen has evolved?
Where are you getting this from? The phrase "pervert" is used by the Gethenians for those always in kemmer and they apply it to all people like Genly Ai; homosexuality or heterosexuality would not matter (in terms of phrase applicability), what makes us perverts to them is that we are always sexually active.

There is this in chapter 5:
Quote:
They are not excluded from society, but they are tolerated with some disdain, as homosexuals are in many bisexual societies.
It says "many" but there is no sense of whether that many is using a historical perspective or not. It seems a fairly small thing to hang all the Ekumen with.

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I'm not blaming her for not going the one step further in being radical on heteronormative issues. I agree with others that it likely would have narrowed her audience further and risked shelving the book. But it is one of the reasons why it does not age well for me.

(It does irk me a little that she went into recovery mode a bit in response to criticism. This sounds much like JK Rowling's insistence after the completion of publication that Dumbledore was gay.)
Her defensive response only makes her human.

I'm not at all convinced that homosexuality (ETA: or heterosexuality) is even applicable to the Gethenians. In kemmer their sexuality is partly driven by the company that they keep, so it could be difficult for a couple turn their sexuality toward the same gender - and I would question whether that is even relevant. It's why I think the book is wrong to emphasise the Gethenians as "manwoman", they are not either, they are something different.

One aspect of the book I did question was why the Gethenians formed strong pair-bonds. This does not seem necessary for their situation, and may actually be contrary to evolutionary drives ... although, as I noted earlier, Le Guin gets to cheat and not need an evolution-safe species, because these were artificially created. And so perhaps it is their innate humanness that makes them inclined to form pair bonds.

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Old 01-23-2019, 12:03 PM   #90
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One aspect of the book I did question was why the Gethenians formed strong pair-bonds. This does not seem necessary for their situation, and may actually be contrary to evolutionary drives ... although, as I noted earlier, Le Guin gets to cheat and not need an evolution-safe species, because these were artificially created. And so perhaps it is their innate humanness that makes them inclined to form pair bonds.

I expect that it's their nature as a high-K species that has encouraged the continuation of pair-bonding.

Pair-bonds in many species appear to be formed for co-parenting and to lessen the burden of courting/mate-finding. It increases the chances of being able to breed during a mating season and having at least two adults around to help raise high-K babies to adulthood. Gethenian biology works against what appear to be the normal alternative for high-K species (having a mostly or completely female group co-raising their children with most males being solitary).

Beings capable of thinking about and adjusting their behaviour as a group may be able to adjust their culture so that pair-bonding is less advantageous but as long as desiring a pair-bond doesn't actually decrease the chances of having grandchildren there will be no reason for the desire to disappear.
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