Tag: fairy tales

Review: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ first foray into adult epic fantasy; you’ll probably know her better as the author of Chocolat. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths, all the way through from creation to Ragnarok, from the point of view of Loki, trickster-god, god of stories and fire and generally pissing off The Man.

It should by rights be brilliant fun. It should be witty and irreverent and rich with meaning. I’m thinking Neil Gaiman at his darkest, most fairytale, least sexist best.

It is…not.

A disclaimer before I dive in: my knowledge of Norse mythology is limited to the brilliant Ragnarok/Cthulu mashup that is steampunk band The Mechanisms’ The Bifrost Incident, and a vague osmotic awareness that there are characters called Thor and Loki inhabiting the Marvel universe. Oh, and a sense of the uniquely Scandinavian grandeur of Norse mythology: mountains that hold the sky on their shoulders, relentless days and weeks and months of snow and ice, and gods to match – menacing, inscrutable, cold and above all huge. If there’s one thing Norse mythology should be, it’s awesome. It should inspire awe. That’s my feeling, anyway.

With that in mind: my overwhelming sense about The Gospel of Loki is that Harris isn’t clear on what she’s trying to do. As far as I can tell, she’s stuck pretty closely to her source material – apart from Loki’s voice. And therein lies the rub. Loki inhabits a world in which women – even goddesses – are things, domesticity is oppressive, femininity is insulting, and gay sex is banned. I think this is Harris’ idea of pre-modern Scandinavia. I don’t know whether it’s accurate (although given the 1950s-style prudishness of it all I suspect it isn’t really); it’s certainly plausible that all of this is in the original texts. But I don’t understand what the point is of repeating it all when Harris has already gone to the trouble of updating Loki’s voice. Why not use anarchic, disruptive Loki to interrogate the sexism and racism and homophobia on which the Norse myths are based (if indeed they are so based)?

That’s the thing, though: Harris’ Loki has no sting for all his talk. In a word, he’s boring. His wit and sarcasm is mainly limited to rote phrases like “so shoot me” and “it wasn’t an easy sell” and metaphors involving cookie jars and terribly misjudged jokes about women and mixing bowls. His cynicism doesn’t revitalise the Norse myths for a modern audience, which I think is what Harris is going for here; instead, it flattens them, makes their great dramas into dull soap operas. Even Ragnarok is boring when it’s narrated by this Loki, and if your apocalypse is boring then, I submit, you’re doing something wrong.

The Gospel of Loki isn’t a rewriting, a deconstruction or an interrogation of Norse mythology. Nor is it a direct translation that’s faithful to the spirit of the original. It’s a weird and pointless halfway house that doesn’t, despite its title, have anything useful or interesting to say about modernity or myth. It repeats harmful stereotypes which the author presumably doesn’t share. And the writing itself is flat, empty and superficial.

In short: I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary. But probably not.

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Top Ten Characters I’d Like to Check In With

  1. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. I don’t think Goldenhand really works as a novel, but it was so lovely seeing Lirael again (and her adorable awkward romance with Nick). She’s just one of those characters who I really, really want to see happy. She deserves it, after all.
  2. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I have so many questions. Does she finish her novel? Does she get together with Rowan? Does she ever have the big screaming relationship-ending argument with Christopher? (I don’t want a sequel, though. The novel is perfect as it is.)
  3. Blue Van Meer – Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I love Blue. She knows so much and is so lost at the same time. What happens to her when she goes to university? Does she ever find out the truth about her father? (Answer: probably not.)
  4. Frodo Baggins – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien. Well, OK, I just want to know what Valinor is like. And what a hobbit even does all day in paradise. Yes, I know these questions entirely miss the point. Oh, also, I would love to see Sam and Frodo’s reunion in Valinor, which I am sure would be lovely beyond words.
  5. Frank Vanderwal – Green Earth, Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson never really says anything about the results of Frank’s brain surgery, I think for thematic reasons – but I’d like to know if his decision-making improves, and how things go with Caroline. (Still shipping him with Diane, though.)
  6. Sei – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. I’d like to hear about all her adventures on the trains. Palimpsest is always a wonderful world to visit, in any case.
  7. The Marquess – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente. It’s possible the Marquess resurfaces in The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, the last of Valente’s Fairyland books. I haven’t read it yet. She has such a fascinating backstory that I hope we do see more of her.
  8. Breq – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. We left Breq just as she was beginning to feel at home among her crew, just as she was starting to develop relationships. It would be lovely to check in with her a few years down the line, and see where those relationships have gone.
  9. Rosemary and Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. I’m shipping these two so hard. That is all.
  10. Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I have a huge soft spot for Nutt, who is kind, clever and very dangerous. Watching him making friends and proving his worth is one of the highlights of the novel – plus, I want to know what becomes of him and Glenda.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Read in the Last Three Years

I’m…slightly surprised by the list I’ve ended up with for this. I’m not even sure why.

These are books I read for the first time in the last three years. Otherwise you’d end up with a list full of Tolkien, and that would be boring.

  1. Railsea – China Mieville. Why is Railsea my favourite book of the last three years? Trains, storytelling, late capitalism, salvagepunk, ginormous flesh-eating desert moles, and a transcendent, revelatory ending that’s as sharply funny as it is perfect. And the sense, so rare in fantasy, that Mieville knows exactly what he’s doing with every single frickin’ word he puts on the page.
  2. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. I read pretty much all of this on a train. I still remember how I felt when I got off that train: utterly entranced, like all the world had turned to Fairyland when I wasn’t looking. I still think it’s kind of problematic that this is a collection of stories about Japan by a white American author. But what stories they are.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Oh, there’s gonna be a lot of Valente in this list. Palimpsest is gorgeous, baroque, labyrinthine, heavy with meaning and Valente’s honey-dripping prose. And really fucking weird to describe to other people: “Well, it’s about a sexually-transmitted city…” I’m planning a Palimpsest cosplay for Nine Worlds this year. That’ll be a fun day.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Like. I think I fell for Our Tragic Universe as hard and completely as I did because it was the right book at just exactly the right time: in this case, a break-up. Or the beginning of one. I read this on a train, too. Its quiet and somehow wholesome hope caught hold of me, and didn’t let go.
  5. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is still one of my comfort reads. It’s just so full of people being nice to each other and looking out for each other’s emotional needs and generally rubbing along together. It’s another one that gives me hope – for our future as a species.
  6. Radiance – Catherynne Valente. ALL THE VALENTE. I actually think Radiance is a bit…self-indulgent? All that postmodernism that doesn’t quite go anywhere new. But I’m very prepared to ignore that for Valente’s lush Art Deco worldbuilding, her brilliant, crazy version of Hollywood-in-space, her prose like gleaming treasure you want to hug to your heart and never let go.
  7. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. I read this so quickly I almost don’t remember it; I only have impressions left. The stories in this collection are welcoming, inclusive, fairy-tale tinged as all of Oyeyemi’s work is, laden with a potent, elegiac mixture of hope and sadness.
  8. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. This. Is. Astonishing. And devastating. The reason it’s this low on my list is because it’s such a tough read: it has a lot to say about trauma, and oppression, and institutional abuse. But it’s a big deal in genre at the moment because it’s smart and inclusive and formally tricksy.
  9. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. “Nyx sold her womb between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” That’s all.
  10. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I haven’t read any Saga for a while because of my local library’s terrible graphic novel section and I always feel unreasonably twitchy about paying £12.99 for 120 pages, but the art and the world and the characters. I’m going to have to get back into it, aren’t I.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Mabinogion

TW: rape.

Oh, do we have to talk about The Mabinogion?

Even though it’s 8pm and I’m going on holiday in the wee hours of Friday morning and there’s still a million things I haven’t done?

Well, fine. If you insist.

Probably the first thing I should say here is that the sum total of what I know about the original Mabinogion – the Welsh story cycle whose closest analogue is probably Arthurian mythology – comes from reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and not enjoying it much. So I can say pretty much nothing about what Evangeline Walton has done to the tales – what she’s removed or added or emphasised. Which is a pity, really, because looking at an author’s sources is the quickest way of discovering what they’re trying to do.

Anyway. Walton’s The Mabinogion is actually an omnibus containing four novels: Prince of Annwn, in which a prince called Pwyll ventures into Death’s land to vanquish a terrible enemy of humanity and of the world; The Children of Llyr, in which a malcontent stirs up a devastating war between Britain and Ireland; The Song of Rhiannon, which sees a king trying to break a curse that’s fallen on his land; and The Island of the Mighty, which like The Owl Service retells the tale of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers and given to a British prince to be his wife, with predictably awful results.

So there’s a lot going on: it’s 700 pages long, after all, and it has politics and war and grief, and trickster figures who live by their wits and bards and riddles and rash promises, and heartbreak and treachery and fear and humour and joy and hope.

But it’s also not an exaggeration, I think, to say that the whole thing is in part a discussion of gender. Throughout their various high-jinks, their magic tricks and their battles and their quests, the novels dramatise a clash between the Old Tribes, whose people, male and female, sleep with whoever they like (well, they’re all straight, but you can’t expect everything from novels written in the 1930s) and leave when they’ve had enough, and the New Tribes, who have discovered how babies are made (I’m serious) and have therefore invented marriage as a way of controlling women and consequently male lineage, and virginity is a concept, and therefore so is rape, and basically the New Tribes are shit.

(It’s pretty clear, too, that Walton thought much of this was true: the idea of a sexually promiscuous Celtic society giving way to a patriarchal one was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, and she footnotes her sources several times throughout the book.)

I spent a lot of energy trying to “solve” The Mabinogion. Is it “good” because it’s sex-positive for both male and female characters and because it sees consent as essential (which is not a given in early twentieth century literature, sadly)? Or is it “bad” because none of its female characters have the kind of reality its male characters have, and because it has a rape scene whose repercussions are more about the perpetrators than the victim, and because it sees all women as mothers at heart?

The answer, of course, is “both” (there’s a brilliant essay here by China Mieville about how culture is oppressive precisely because it’s flexible enough to accommodate both sides of a binary) and “neither” (from a critical standpoint, it’s a product of its culture with no intrinsic moral value). What’s interesting – or, rather, troubling – is why I put all that effort into coming up with a value judgement. I think there’s a lot of pressure – fuelled, undoubtedly, by the blessing and curse that is Twitter – in progressive pop culture to “solve” a text, to be able to label it objectively problematic, in which case everyone who ever reads it and enjoys it is a terrible person, or objectively progressive, in which case you are allowed to read it and express your love for it. I’m guilty of this myself: everyone who expresses admiration for Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is instantly suspect in my book, for instance, and I’m not even joking about that. There are good reasons why this is so: we’re all anxious about being aware of our cultural biases and making sure that what we recommend to others isn’t going to harm them and listening to minorities when they say their representation isn’t good enough. And those are all good things to hold in our heads. But, sometimes (just sometimes), I think we close down discussion and dialogue in favour of easy answers. That’s a problem because we live in a problematic culture, and so every product of that culture is going to be itself problematic, and labelling just some texts as problematic erases the wider context that created them.

(By the way, that Mieville article says everything I’m trying to say, only much, much better.)

This is a rather wide digression from The Mabinogion itself, which just goes to show how (not) engrossed I was in that text during the interminable three weeks I was stuck in it. (By way of comparison, I can usually read a book in 4-5 days.) I bounced hard off the representation of women here, and that stopped me from enjoying pretty much anything else in the book. That’s an un-nuanced reaction, and one which, yes, stems from the labelling impulse I’ve just talked about, and maybe if I read it again I’d find other things to value about it (as Kari Sperring does at Strange Horizons). For instance: I think there’s probably something interesting to be said about how Walton repurposes these Welsh legends to talk to wider Anglophone culture (Walton was American). In The Mabinogion, she takes up the function of myth, which is to tell us something about our place in the world, in a profoundly feminist cause; her thesis is that we came to be here, inhabitants of a misogynist culture heading rapidly towards ecological collapse, because of patriarchy. Which I agree with, partially, and it’s something I want to admire (especially given when these novels were first written, which I cannot emphasise enough), but…and here we are again.

And – well, I’m not at university any more. I don’t have to spend three weeks of my precious reading time trying to suck meaning from a text that’s actively annoying me.

I hope, though, that if I find myself talking to someone who’s read it as well (which seems vastly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll actually have a discussion, with listening instead of labelling.

Review: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first novel in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to the metaphysical YA juggernaut that is His Dark Materials. Which means, inevitably, that it comes with a whole load of not-necessarily-fair reader-response baggage. (I can’t imagine anyone reading La Belle Sauvage without already having read the original series. But maybe that’s short-sighted of me.)

I found it an odd beast, compared with His Dark Materials. Our Hero is Malcolm Potstead, a precocious eleven-year-old whose parents run the Trout, a country inn a couple of miles from Pullman’s alternative and vaguely steampunk Oxford. (The Trout is a real, and moderately famous, pub; one of the delightful things about reading La Belle Sauvage is tracing its characters through slightly different versions of places that really exist.) When the nuns at Godstow Priory, just opposite the Trout, take in a baby girl called Lyra (who’ll grow into the heroine of the later books), Malcolm gets drawn into the machinations of a secret society called Oakley Street, which works against the oppressive state church which controls the Britain of the novel. He becomes a spy for Oakley Street alethiometrist Hannah Relf, taking her news of Lyra and the church’s incursion into his school and anything else vaguely unusual.

The novel intertwines chapters from Malcolm’s point of view with chapters from Hannah’s. This feels unusual in a novel that’s ostensibly YA/MG (although it’s something that Pullman’s done before, with Mary Malone’s chapters in The Amber Spyglass). What’s more, Hannah’s chapters are (unsurprisingly) markedly different in content and feel than Malcolm’s. They’re filled with worries about academia and Oakley Street politics and her spywork, the complexities of functioning as an adult in a very real, and very hostile, world. Malcolm’s chapters are no less complex, exactly, but they register the world in a different way: to his single-minded and still childish intelligence, the world is a puzzle to be solved, not quite participated in as a full agent. So, when a great and unprecedented flood comes to Oxford, threatening to put Lyra in the way of her father Lord Asriel’s enemies in the church, Malcolm’s solution is one only a child could come up with: ride the flood (in his canoe La Belle Sauvage) to London, to take Lyra to her father there.

The flood chapters are…interesting, and don’t exactly seem to take place in the same world as His Dark Materials. As John Clute points out in Strange Horizons, they are Spenserian rather than Miltonian: they take place in an England (or, an Albion) populated by hidden, allegorical magic beings (Father Thames, for instance, pops out of the flood at one point). As Malcolm, Lyra and their abrasive, accidental companion Alice float down the swollen river, chased by Lord Asriel’s enemies, they encounter strange and mist-bound perils, which they escape through a combination of fairytale logic, ingenuity and childish literalness of thought. I couldn’t help comparing the linearity and narrow focus of this Spenserian quest structure with the much more exploratory bagginess, the dead ends and reversals and multiple plotlines, of His Dark Materials. (If I recall correctly, Hannah Relf’s chapters in La Belle Sauvage end when the flood comes, leaving us with a single narrative thread to follow.) Put more simply: Father Thames doesn’t feel like something that can exist in the wonderful but ultimately scientific-rational world of His Dark Materials. His is a less comprehensible magic, one unencompassed by Hannah Relf’s understanding of the world as a web whose threads, however tangled, can be followed at least in theory.

One of the things I think Pullman is interested in, then, here and in his earlier trilogy, is the difference between childhood and adulthood, and, more precisely, the transition between them. Malcolm’s story may look like Spenserian allegory, but it’s not immediately clear what it might be an allegory for. Certainly not innocence: like His Dark Materials’ Will, and older Lyra to a certain extent, Malcolm and Alice are forceful about getting what they need for Lyra (nappies and bottle feeds are major plot drivers), and about escaping those who hunt them. They break into shops and houses, they are canny about how to elicit people’s sympathies, they don’t hesitate to use violence. Which isn’t to say that they are horrible people, of course (although I remain, frankly, unconvinced about Malcolm); merely that Pullman is pushing back against conventional representations of the child. As I’ve said, the novel’s form suggests that, for Pullman, the difference is one of outlook: a child’s (or teenager’s; Alice is fifteen) view of the world is narrow, specific, and observant, and occupies a position of relative powerlessness, while an adult’s is strategic and participatory, looking for networks and intersections with a view to influencing and inhabiting them. Adults create the waterways that children navigate, to force a metaphor perhaps too far.

So it’s a book about power and powerlessness (and wouldn’t this post have been so much shorter if I’d realised that an hour ago?). It’s very much a first-in-series novel, so it doesn’t come to any conclusions (unlike Northern Lights, the first His Dark Materials novel, which stands by itself very nicely both plot-wise and thematically) – which, to me, makes it feel vaguely unsatisfying. As does the fact that I don’t think Pullman does Spenser nearly so well as he does Milton. Faerie requires a lighter, more ethereal touch which Pullman’s storytelling is too robust to deliver. La Belle Sauvage feels like – well, not exactly a minor work, but nothing equalling anything in His Dark Materials either. In the most clichéd of reviewerly sign-offs: it remains to be seen what he’ll do with its sequels.

Ten Books I Utterly Failed to Read in 2017

…that I planned to read in 2017, obviously.

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. Last February I vowed to read the Vorkosigan saga in 2017. I have many abject reading failures under my belt, but this probably one of the abjectest.
  2. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin. I have had this on my TBR pile at least since November. Probably before that, even. This is particularly egregious since it is borrowed from a friend who has probably given up all hope of seeing it again.
  3. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. See above.
  4. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Mieville. I bought this to celebrate moving to London last April. It is still sitting near the bottom of my TBR, because of library books and borrowed books and my inveterate habit of, gasp, buying more books.
  5. PopCo – Scarlett Thomas. Uh, see above again. I do actually want to read these books! I am just tyrannised by some slightly obsessive habits when it comes to my TBR.
  6. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I mean, I should have read this years ago, it’s a Terry Pratchett novel. Ah, but it’s not a Discworld novel, is it. And the Long Earth series got kind of tedious a while ago.
  7. Infidel – Kameron Hurley. The library has Rapture. The bookshops have God’s War. None of them has Infidel. Godsdammit.
  8. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden – Catherynne Valente. MUST. HAVE. ALL THE VALENTE. Although I didn’t do too badly Valente-wise last year, actually (I managed Palimpsest, Deathless and The Melancholy of Mechagirl, plus some short stories online and a load of Patreon posts WHICH DEFINITELY COUNT).
  9. Saga Volume 5 – Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I can’t believe I didn’t manage any Saga last year. Well, actually, I can, since my new local library has a sadly impoverished graphic novel section and £15 for 120 pages still feels like too much even if they are beautiful pages and I can technically afford it. Maybe 2018 is the year that I get over that. Maybe.
  10. King Rat – China Mieville. I did manage a Mieville last year – The Last Days of New Paris – but for me it was one of his drier books, and I’m hoping King Rat is more on the Gothic-Lovecraftian-screaming-void-of-meaning side of his work.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness feels like an older generation’s Ancillary Justice.

I say that partly because it’s a good first sentence that makes me sound like a more seasoned SF reviewer than I actually am, and partly because, like Ancillary Justice, a lot of the discussion that goes on around The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on its approach to gender to the exclusion of much else that’s important and interesting about it.

Its premise is simple enough: Genly Ai is an ambassador to the icy planet of Gethen (Winter, in the language of its inhabitants) from the Ekumen, a confederacy of worlds. Most of the time, the Gethenians are gender-neutral and biologically intersex; but for about a week every month they go into kemmer, becoming either biologically male or biologically female, depending on what other nearby people in kemmer are doing. Kemmer, it seems, is mainly spent having sex with all and sundry: there are monogamous couples on Gethen, but it’s by no means the norm. And, of course, any one Gethenian can sire and bear children (although not, presumably, at the same time).

The novel follows Genly (whose society has the same gender norms as ours – more on that later) as he navigates the politics of the two major Gethenian nations, Orgoreyn and Karhide, in an attempt to bring the planet into the Ekumen. His efforts – his very presence, in fact – threaten to destabilise the fragile balance between the powers and topple the planet into war – a concept that’s entirely new to Gethen, because its societies have never developed ideas of toxic masculinity that’s performed through large-scale aggression.

So. What I find most interesting about The Left Hand of Darkness is how it uses language to construct a world that’s very different from ours – not just in terms of gender, but in general outlook and philosophy. I don’t mean by that the mundane work of worldbuilding that most SFF authors engage in, but a much more potent and challenging semantic slippage, a textual instability that evokes a world that is always already irrevocably changing.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, in other words. So we have Genly’s report on his mission (although, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” – from the very first lines a gap is growing between observer and observed, between narrated experience and unmediated “reality”); notes from the diary of a Karhide politician called Estraven, who’s trying to push his reluctant country into a new age; ethnological notes from the Ekumen’s first clandestine mission to Gethen; and a series of Gethenian myths and legends. That’s four views of Gethen, overlapping, jostling for factual and emotional primacy; each of them with different priorities, different focuses, different assumptions, different prejudices. Their conflicting clamour distorts the edges of what we can know about Gethen (especially in later chapters, when we get different versions of the same events from Genly and Estraven); but it also serves to give us a better picture of what Gethen is like than an omniscient narrator can. Gethen, like all real societies, is constantly rewriting itself. It never stays still, it’s never just one thing. What was once true is always, almost by definition, now untrue. Genly’s arrival on the planet, and his message of Ekumenical peace and love, has exacerbated this process somewhat; it’s a society on the cusp of great change, and this clamour of voices is a particularly apt way of evoking that textually.

And so, onto some problems with The Left Hand of Darkness. (In all fairness, it was first published in 1969. It would be practically impossible for it not to have some problems.) The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the most glaring one: the use of male pronouns to describe the gender-neutral Gethenians.

This is partly an effect of semantic slippage, the gap between author and protagonist that helps to create the world of Gethen more fully. Put less pretentiously, Genly is enormously, outrageously misogynist.

The [Gethenian] guards…tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate – not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.

Yes, that’s right: Genly thinks women are cows. Le Guin was a strident feminist; these are assuredly not her views.

So we can, if we so wish, argue that the novel’s use of “he” as a universal pronoun is Genly’s use, not Le Guin’s; a reflection of the sexist strategies he uses to construct his world and his own experience. (Remember: this is a novel that’s deliberately placing emphasis on the truth-value of experience.) But, still, I think we run into a problem with the fact that all of the narratives use male pronouns to describe the Gethenians, who surely have their own pronouns. We can speculate that Genly’s translated these narratives (although: not the ethnological reports, which I think were written by women from Genly’s society), and so they’re also subject to his construction (as they assuredly are anyway, per that first sentence), but I don’t think this is speculation that goes anywhere, and at some point along that line of speculation the gap between protagonist and author narrows to a width so tiny it’s not worth mentioning any more. Which is to say: the universal male pronoun is ultimately an authorial choice, no matter the semantic slippage that’s happening along the way. And it’s a problematic choice.

Ah, but: as I said at the beginning of this post, gender is only one of many things The Left Hand of Darkness is interested in. (And, for the record, I don’t think its treatment of gender is entirely problematic: it’s certainly always refreshing to read something that tries to reconstruct gender and sexual norms so thoroughly.) It’s also interested in duality, change, survival, politics, war, time, shared humanity; it’s a portrait of a world and a character and a relationship all at once. Above all, it’s dialectic, not didactic: it leaves space for conversation, contemplation, reinvention. I liked it. I’m glad I read it. That’s all; that’s enough.