The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Much like the previous books in the Hainish Cycle, I found this book to be full of interesting ideas but delivered through average execution. The story is about a Human emissary to an alien world called Winter, where the intelligent life forms are stubborn, bureaucratic humanoids who can change their gender when it comes time to mating. The largest differences between our world and the world of Winter is that with no dominant sex, traditional gender roles do not exist. The human is actually considered a pervert by the natives, as he is always ready for mating while the alien life forms only mate at certain times of the monthly cycle.
Beyond that there is some additional world building relating to the different governing faction on the planet and the mathematics and calendar that heavily depend on the number 13. The perspective is mainly told through the human protagonist, although it does shift to a secondary character named Estraven who at times is not trusted by the human and at others is his only ally. I found these shifts in perspective frustrating as they weren’t marked by anything and typically happened in chapters with little dialogue so I wasn’t even aware the perspective shifted right away on several instances. Better executed are a few chapters that go into folklore and history of this alien planet, which are more clearly marked and provide some interesting context.
One of the most common criticisms of science fiction are books where characters and places all have weird names and which keep it from reading like a typical story. I actually found that to be the case here, as aside from three characters (the human, Estraven, and the King (who is usually referred to as the King)) the names were all so complex that I rarely retained them and had no interest in trying to pronounce them in my head while reading to myself. Perhaps this would have been alleviated by reading this as an audiobook, but between the jargon names and the unclear shifting perspectives I found this to be a frustrating read at times.
The plot is fairly straight forward, with the human emissary trying to open trade (mainly of thought and culture) with this alien world, which will primarily be accomplished via the use of an ansible that allows for instant communication across the universe. The trip to the planet is seventeen years from the nearest inhabited world, and “a lifetime” away from Earth. What should have been an easy sell is complicated by the bureaucratic intrigue of the government officials and the rivaling governmental factions on the planet. The result is a journey that leads across secured borders, into prison stints and a 700+ mile journey over barren frozen landscape. The best passages deal with the human’s interactions with Estraven, as the two try to understand each other and mind-speak (I picture the Vulcan mind meld) to each other. There are clearly some interesting relationship dynamics between the human and the androgynous/multisexual aliens.
The previous books I’ve read that have been both Hugo and Nebula award winners have all been fantastic, and while this book was interesting I was let down overall in comparison.
Stand on Zanzibar
Author: John Brunner
Stand on Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel, beating (among other books) Rite of Passage which was a book I really enjoyed. While Stand on Zanzibar was much more ambitious than Rite of Passage, I preferred Panshin’s book to Brunner’s though Zanzibar was still much better than several other award winners from that era (sorry Delaney).
The first thing that strikes a reader beginning this book is the unusual structure Brunner uses to tell his story. Instead of solely advancing a narrative, Brunner utilizes a macro-micro type of setting similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but with four separate styles of chapters. The chapter styles alternate between:
- Continuity – This is the basic narrative advancement
- Tracking with closeups – This follows secondary characters, and then eventually becomes a second main plot passing through the book
- The happening world – This is a scattershot macro section where rapid fire paragraphs give headlines, slogans, conversations, etc. to funnel a ton of information and create a sense of atmosphere
- Context – Similar to the appendices tacked onto the end of Dune, these chapters just provide additional world building.
The plot of Stand on Zanzibar follows a few main threads that all deal with the overpopulation epidemic of the future (of the distant year of 2010!). A super computer owned by a General Electric type company is used to direct decisions by the most powerful company in the world. A small country in Africa has the very unusual characteristics of no murders or border conflicts for years and is looking for a new leader to replace their dying President. A genetics specialist in Asia claims to have developed the secret to creating super babies for those so inclined; the United States sends a spy in to determine the truthfulness of the claim.
While this was a book that took me awhile to get interested in (it doesn’t really pick up or steer the plot until a long cocktail party chapter told through rapid fire conversation switches) I actually ended up really enjoying it by the end. The science stuff actually holds up better than one would expect from the subject matter, as Brunner’s writing ends up having a kind of internet/twitter vibe with all the rapid fire information. The interconnection of politics and major corporations also was well done. Although some of the racial politics of the book have a very 1960’s slant, unfortunately some of the issues (police relations, representation at the corporate level) are still very relevant today.
If I had a main criticism of the book it’s that the characters are pretty flat, with only one of them being particularly interesting. Donald is a spy sent to the small Asian country by the United States. **Slight spoilers though the rest of this paragraph** Before he goes he is basically reprogrammed Jason Bourne style to also be an assassin. His character’s storyline is the most exciting one in the book, but that’s more a statement on the lack of competition by the supporting cast. Norman is probably the main protagonist of this book, the lone black man on the board of the big company and the man most responsible for the super computer becoming the new president of the small African country. Most of the tension in this plot line is whether the transition will be profitable for the company or not.
While I’ll probably remember this book as one that took a long time to get into and focused on style (unusual chapter structure) over substance (character development), I should point out that this was also the type of book that draws you in as it progresses. The fact that not all of the plot threads end up connecting is actually a good thing as the two main characters start out roommates and too many connections at the end would have felt forced.