Sunday, April 4, 2010

#27: The Left Hand of Darkness, #4 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Left Hand of Darkness:

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“Truth is a matter of the imagination.” 
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“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession... Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”  
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“It is a terrible thing, this kindess that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give. ” 
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This novel has one of the most interesting concepts of any novel on this list. The Left Hand of Darkness is known as a classic of feminist literature, and, although I don't quite consider myself a radical feminist, I found it to be quite interesting and enjoyable.
The novel chronicles a representative of the Hainish worlds (basically a confederation of a few dozen planets with human inhabitants) and his visit to a world called Gethen, or Winter. Genly Ai is the man who has come to observe the Gethenians and request them to join the Ekumen of Known Worlds. The people of Gethen, however, are unlike any other humans. They are all of the same gender. (This novel is really only feminist because of how a person from today's time would read it, so they could see how the two genders are more alike than one might assume; there are no female characters, only Genly and the Gethenians).
Once a month, for a few days, a Gethenian will go into kemmer, a sexually active stage in which they must go to special enclaves in which they will find others in kemmer that they can mate with. During kemmer, one Gethenian will randomly sprout one type of sexual organ, while the other will sprout the opposite, and they will have sex. Because of this, one Gethenian can be the father of a few children and the mother of a few others. Le Guin shows the reader the quirks of Gethenian society- of course there are no gender roles, so everyone is treated equally in that respect. Le Guin also shows how certain elements of society have stayed the same, when on Earth, they would've changed, specifically a model of truck which has not been changed for quite a while, simply because the Gethenians did not see a reason to make a better model, because the one they had was fine.
That being said, the Gethenians are not perfect... This novel is the story of how Genly Ai interacts with the two nations of Gethen; how he clashes with the king Argavan, of the monarchy Karhide, and how he flees and seeks refuge in the socialistic Orgoreyn. The story also follows Estraven, a Gethenian from Karhide who sympathized with Genly and his plea for Gethen to join the Ekumen, and was banished from Karhide because of it. Le Guin's descriptions of the Gobrin Ice, and the snowy darkness of the world of Gethen are excellent parts of the novel, the cold and eerie dark feel show in her descriptions of Genly walking in the open air.
Some excellent scenes include the telepathic connection of Estraven and Genly on the Gobrin Ice, and the scene inside the truck in which Genly is held for a few days. All in all, The Left Hand of Darkness is a powerful, dark classic of SF. Some complain that it is slow in parts and the Gobrin Ice episode is a little dragged out. These complaints are not without merit, but I don't think that they detract too much from the novel as a whole. This novel is certainly a classic of SF, and one that fans of literature, SF, and feminism alike should take a look at.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy:

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“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.” 
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“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” 
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“This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” 
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This book is as fun and funny as hell, and you don't get to say that too often when reviewing Sci-Fi. Vonnegut's SF works like Cat's Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and Slaughter House Five, and W.M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz can be darkly humorous at times, but I don't think any of those books are real feel-good tales. Hitchhikers lampoons all the SF stereotypes and pulls it off brilliantly, originally, and hilariously.
This is THE SF comedy, nothing else can come close, Hitchhikers has consumed the territory. Of course, this is the first book in the series, and although I hear that by about book four the jokes start to get old, I haven't read the series save this one, and I know it's one of the funniest books I've ever read. It's over waaay too soon, as well. Hitchhiker's humor is offbeat, quirky, and uproariously funny. I didn't think it was possible for a book to be more than maybe a few chuckles per hundred pages, but this book proved me wrong. I'm recommending it to any SF fan, or anyone who likes a good laugh, and/or loves to read. You'll love Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, no matter what your genre preference.
This book is the story of how Earth is destroyed to make way for a giant Galactic freeway, and how Arthur Dent escapes with the help of his friend Ford Prefect to a nearby spaceship. Arthur and Ford use the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which apparently outsells the Encyclopedia Galactica, a nod to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy), a guidebook to the Galaxy with witty entries and bits of advice on almost everything in the cosmos. Ford and Arthur soon join Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the Galaxy, and his girlfriend and depressed robot servant, Marvin, on a quest to the planet Magrathea. There is plenty of mayhem and absurdity throughout, and Douglas Adams' very real talent often shines through, with his excellent humor and originality (The Improbability Drive is a gem, and the Hooloovoo are some of the most creative kinds of aliens I've read about in any SF, superintelligent shades of the color blue which are refracted into prisms to stand still) he makes a great, entertaining, and hard-to-put-down book.
This is a laugh-out-loud work of science fiction, a very rare breed by my estimation. If you're just finished reading a work of SF that is depressing and has a dim view of humanity in general (and there are many), give this book a whirl to get you cheered up. A great, short read, which I can't recommend enough!

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