To my mind there are two types of Science Fiction writing: there’s the stuff that takes what we know today, moves it a bit in time and then twists, so that it’s recognisable and just about conceivable as a reality and these are often placed as dystopias (The Handmaid’s Tail, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Clockwork Orange etc) then there are the utterly ‘other’ stuff which always feel like a cross between some crazed Roger Dean world and Lord of the Fucking Rings in Space. I’m thinking Avatar. I don’t like this second category.
When Le Guin died earlier this year I read the appreciations of a writer who I had never read and became interested in this novel because of the apparent prescience (it was written in 1969) of a race on another planet, who were gender-less until they came ‘into season’ or ‘kemmer ‘ as she named it, when they could chose their gender. As an aside, there was something vaguely amusing in the host’s view of human sexuality with its fixed genders and always ‘being in kemmer’ as a perversion. Consequently, most adults in this place had borne at least one child, parenting was evenly distributed as were all the rules and laws around parenting. Gender fluidity bred a form of parenting equality. Which it would. Ground breaking and worthwhile thinking. Problematically, for me at least, all of this was wrapped up in some fairly standard Fantasy stuff.
There is also some ‘let’s all be good eggs’ stuff about it not being in the culture on the planet to turn away anyone who knocks on your door and asks for shelter. Again, all quite admirable.
Genly Ai is an ethnologist from Earth sent to study the different peoples of the planet Gethen, a mainly ice-bound place, except at the equator, where most of the different civilisations and countries are found. He is taken prisoner and released or escapes with some regularity…there is a nightmare journey in a sealed railway wagon with some thirty other souls that is straight from Nazi Germany; a spell in a prison camp surrounded by frozen tundra, the Gulag pages of Solzhenitsyn, followed by a long, well-written and tense trek across an icecap lasting 80 days, with diminishing food supplies but a growing love between Ai and his genderless companion.
I think I’m put off the genre, in the main by all the endless affectations of different names and places and gods and rules: ‘…and present enemies of the land. Odguyrny Tuwa, Eighth Hour, in the Palace of Erhenrang: AR-GAVEN HARGE’. What…oh, never mind.
So, I don’t know what I think about this. It didn’t encourage me to read anything else by Le Guin, but if I’m in a holiday cottage and there’s one or two lying around there wouldn’t be any harm in it.
And I still don’t care much for Fantasy Sci-Fi…much less Phantasy. FFS…or even PhPhS.