As I work through joint Hugo/Nebula winning books (this is also in the ‘100 Best SF’ collection), this was another worthwhile discovery.
Le Guin’s winter world feels rich and authentic, as do her alien societies. Estravan is noble, tragic and heroic, as is his namesake in the strikingly effective parallel inserted historical vignette. There is surprisingly little action within the context of conflict and international (and intergalactic) tension, although the occasional thriller scenes are handled capably, and the gruelling escape over the ice is epic. I really appreciate the way she builds Genli and Estravan’s relationship through their shared ordeals, rather than just assuming it. Le Guin admirably avoids a formula plot, particularly with the ugly diversion into Pulefen ‘Farm’.
It’s an original ‘first contact’ idea, but one that I suspect influenced later (good) books such as Cherryh’s ‘Cuckoo’s Egg’, Banks’ Culture series, and Orson Scott Card’s Ender series (where he also just grabs her ‘ansible’ concept, name and all). Rather than blithely blasting in and out of relatively primitive societies on their way to more important business (no hyperspace bypasses here), the Ekumen does covert research, then sends in a lone envoy. Curiously they aren’t protected, culture-like, by hidden technology: rather there’s something, dare I say, Christlike in the way Genli Ai has put aside his transcendent advantages to live (and suffer) with all the restrictions and vulnerability of the natives. I wasn’t totally convinced by the rationale: at times it seems it would have suited everyone’s purposes if the Ekumen arrived (as they eventually do anyway) with a fanfare, but perhaps there was some advantage in the subtle preparation of having an initial unthreatening visitor. Whether there was or not, Genli’s experience is compelling.
Oddly I felt the androgyny, something I suspect was central for Le Guin, was expendable. The sexuality angle was a cool idea neatly stated, but in practise the characters’ actions and dialogue could overwhelmingly have been spoken by ‘standard’ humans and have made equal sense.
Le Guin has managed a rare gravity and dignity, particularly in 1969, where intergalactic contact was more often a Star Trek style place to go and pash a green chick. I suspect part of the reason she made the top 100 cut was that ‘The Left Hand’ raised the bar and, apart from being a potent read on its own, led to some better books in its footsteps.