The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

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If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

Genly Ai, who is from Terra, has been sent as an envoy to the far-away planet of Gethen. He is there to invite the inhabitants to join the federation of planets, one that makes trade possible and mediates disputes but does not rule its members. Gethen has no space travel capability, so its people initially cannot believe that Genly comes from another planet, despite his vehicle and slightly different appearance. The federation has sent only one person as an envoy to reassure the people that it is not an invading force.

Gethen’s climate is so harsh that the planet is known as Winter. It is divided into two major nations: Karhide and Orgota. It is to Karhide that Genly goes first.

What is most baffling to Genly is that Gethen’s inhabitants are androgynous. They only take on gender characteristics for a few days once a month, a time they call kemmer, when sexual interactions are taken for granted. They could be female one month, male the next. The rest of the time, they have no gender. Genly keeps trying to overlay his gender preconceptions on the people he meets, for example, distrusting what he sees as the feminine side of Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide who has done the most to validate Genly’s story and promote his work.

As the story opens, Genly is at last about to have an audience with the king of Karhide, said to be mad. However, the night before the audience, Estraven invites Genly to dinner and afterwards tells him he can no longer assist Genly and has not recommended his cause to the king. Feeling betrayed and angry, Genly leaves, but at his audience the next day he learns something that makes him see the evening in a new light.

It is this that is most fascinating to me in this story. Confronted with a foreign culture and despite all of his diplomatic training, Genly constantly misunderstands or guesses blindly at meaning, distracted and misled by his own cultural frameworks.

What could be more relevant to today’s fractured and polarised world? How do we learn to set aside our preconceptions and see each other?

And on top of this is what Genly perceives as gender confusion. Having taken the power politics inherent in gender roles out of the equation, the difference in the resulting cultures is fascinating. And promising for the world many of us would like to see.

For one thing, there have been no wars. Disagreements, skirmishes, certainly. But that’s all. However, now a border dispute between Karhide and Orgota threatens to change that, as power-hungry politicians try to cultivate a previously-unknown sense of nationalism. Brexit, anyone?

With all these fascinating themes, you’d think this would be a dense story, a slow read. It is anything but! Le Guin spins the tension so tightly you barely have time to catch your breath, culminating in a thrilling escape that touches some of our own near-mythical stories.

All I can say is: Read it now! Let’s talk about it.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

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This novel opens with a punch as astronaut Mark Watney faces his own imminent death. Thinking him lost in a dust storm, his crewmates have taken off to return to Earth, leaving Watney stranded on Mars. In the best Robinson Crusoe tradition, he has to figure out how to survive in the harsh Martian environment until the next mission arrives—which won’t be for another four years.

One thing that lifts this story above the usual marooned-on-a-desert-island tale is Watney’s voice which we hear almost entirely through the entries he makes in his log. He’s smart and funny and never gives up. Faced with a problem, he thinks about it and comes up with a possible solution, and if that doesn’t work he comes up with another. His MacGyver-esque repurposing of the things around him is fascinating. Watney is clear about his failures and limitations; sharing a name with a famous brand of beer, he makes no bones about his status.

Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be ‘in command’ if I were the only remaining person. What do you know? I’m in command.

As well as being a survival story, this is also a rescue thriller. Once NASA realises Watney is alive, teams of people swing into action to find a way, amongst the strictly limited options, to bring him home. As the clock ticks away, the stakes couldn’t be higher for this high-profile rescue. NASA and the U.S.’s international reputations are at risk, not to mention Watney’s life. Of almost equal concern to Watney himself is the potential loss of the precious research he’s been able to conduct while marooned on Mars.

I found the switch to NASA and a third-person point of view a bit of a wrench since it didn’t occur till well into the story. By then I was deeply focused on Watney. I never completely regained that depth of focus, but introducing people and tensions back home provided some interesting contrasts and enabled us to follow the rescue efforts in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do if the point of view had stayed solely with Watney.

One of the best things about this novel is the science. Watney’s situation is so dire and his voice so entertaining that his explanations of the science behind his creative solutions are fun to read. The part that I’m familiar with was certainly accurate and the rest plausible. I love the idea of him being saved by science. And—mystery devotee that I am—I loved that so much of the story was about solving problems. It added to the realism and the tension that not all his solutions worked. The way he picked himself up after every failure was admirable.

My one complaint was the lack of insight into Watney as a person. We learn nothing of his family or his life back on Earth, whether he has a girlfriend, likes football, or whatever. There is a vague reference at the very end to a couple on Earth worrying and awaiting news, whom I assume to be his parents, but we aren’t told. We get a little insight indirectly through his need for human contact, which recurs throughout the story. He doesn’t paint a face on a volleyball, but he does think of his crewmates as he apologetically uses their belongings.

Generally in a novel, we want interior story arc as well as an exterior story arc. However, that is actually less common for the scifi/suspense/thriller genres. Also, since what we are hearing are his work logs, he’s less likely to share his inner feelings (except by swearing now and then). Still, for me it made the book feel a bit dry sometimes, and I’d have gladly traded a few bits of science for some personal information.

One theme that comes through in this story is how much a single life matters. What is the worth of one person? Call me cynical, but I didn’t quite believe that the U.S. government would come up with billions of dollars and cripple future space programs to bring home one astronaut. I know how hard it is for NASA and other such agencies to get funding.

Still, it is a good case study for ethics classes. It is one of those wicked problems for which there is no easy answer. Like most people, my heart is moved when a child falls down a well or a hiker is lost in the wilderness. Yet I also consider the human and financial costs of rescue missions. I respect the military’s “Leave no soldier behind” ethos, but would rescuing Watney really be the best use of resources? As a former welfare mother who watched people I knew starve and suffer and die for no other reason than poverty—poor nutrition, substandard housing, lack of medical care—I can’t help thinking how many lives could be saved by those dollars. It is much easier for our hearts to be moved by the plight of one person than that of thousands of people.

The breakneck pace of this story does not allow more than a passing glance at these issues, but it is enough to conjure a larger meaning, a more significant framework that gets us thinking. It is enough to make this story more than just an action tale, more than just a thrill ride. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s worth reading the book.

What book do you recommend reading in addition to seeing the film on which it’s based?

Note #1: Thank you to my Book Dissection Group for much of the insight included in this blog post. Opinions are my own, of course.

Note #2: Originally I included more examples of the humor, but I’ve deleted them so as not to ruin the punchlines for you. Read the book!