“The Left Hand of Darkness” is widely regarded as being a classic work of Science Fiction. I think a lot of the praise it gets is well-deserved but I also found it a bit disappointing because it is a book that I ended up admiring more than actually liking.
A large part of the book’s fame comes from the setting, a world named Winter which is entirely populated by genetically modified humans who are all androgynous and only take on male or female sexuality for a short period of time each year. Much of the story revolves around the main character Genly, an envoy from a distant space-faring civilisation on a First Contact mission, trying to understand the world he finds himself in and trying to adjust to a society without traditional gender roles. This premise would probably have felt more revolutionary when this book was published in the late sixties, the impact of it has been diluted a bit by later books using a similar premise (probably in many case inspired by Le Guin’s work), but I think the book still has plenty of interesting and thought-provoking things to say on the subject. I think this is the best bit of the world-building, but I was less impressed by some of the other aspects of it. A lot of time is spent describing the world of Winter and the two main civilisations on it but other than the inhabitants’ unusual gender I didn’t find the world to be all that interesting and at times it felt a bit lacking in depth, particularly when Genly moves to the excessively bureaucratic land of Orgoreyn whose society felt too simplistic to be entirely convincing. There are some interludes adding some historical and mythical information about the world, I thought these varied from interesting to slightly dull. One thing that does work well is showing how hostile and unforgiving a world the aptly-named Winter is and it’s probably no coincidence that the most compelling part of the book details an arduous journey across a glacier.
We don’t get to see much of the civilisation which sent Genly on his mission and I think we could have benefited from seeing a bit more of them. Genly’s attitudes and way of viewing the world made him feel more like a character from 20th Century Earth rather than advanced spacefaring civilisation and I was never entirely clear whether this was meant to be a commentary on that civilisation not being quite as liberal and open-minded as they probably thought they were. If we could have seen some other characters from the same civilisation this might have helped show whether Genly is typical of them or whether he was just a poor choice who wasn’t well-suited for the job he is asked to doo. The way Genly’s mission is structured also seems contrived and unlikely, while I can see the logic behind sending a single unthreatening envoy to make First Contact rather than a large party it does seem unbelievable that he spends most of the time out of contact with the ship that brought him and that they didn’t at least send one envoy to each civilisation on the planet (unsurprisingly the fact that he landed initially in one civilisation rather than the other leads to some tension).
The characterisation had some high points but was often a bit lacking. I thought there was one really fascinating character in the form of Estraven, the senior politician who is one of the few people on Winter to fully grasp how important Genly’s mission is. The interactions between Genly and Estraven are key to the book, both their initial misunderstanding as the differences between their cultures cause confusion and their eventual friendship as they are both forced to flee from those who see Genly’s mission as a threat. Unfortunately, while Genly and Estraven get plenty of character development we don’t seem to see enough of most of the supporting characters for them to really become interesting and as a result they end up feeling a bit bland by comparison.
The book is fairly slow-paced for the most part as Genly wanders around Winter (slightly aimlessly at times) and it feels like the story only really kicks in during the last third of the book. By the end the story has become compelling, but it’s a pity that the book took so long to get to that stage. Ultimately it does make for a satisfying and thought-provoking plot but it does feel like the book could have added a bit more in the way of plot and characterisation without losing any of the elements that made it interesting.
This is a book that I would recommend for its ideas and I think it does enough to deserve its status as a classic work of Science Fiction, but some other SF classics have done a better job of balancing ideas and plot.
Rating : 7 / 10
The Diamond Age is one of those frustrating novels which at its best tells a compelling story with fascinating ideas and memorable characters but fails to sustain that quality over an entire book and ends up being good but not as great as it could have been, a bit like the other Neal Stephenson novels I’ve read.
One of the things that works well here is the setting, which manages to both be futuristic and also feel surprisingly topical for a book that’s almost twenty years old. A lot of the book is spent examining the impact of two technologies – the effects of widespread 3D printing on the global economy and the use of tablet computers in education of children. While early versions of both these technologies did exist back in the mid-90s I think Stephenson has done a good job of extrapolating from them, many of the issues brought up in the book will also frequently appear in modern-day news stories about the future of those technologies. Other aspects of the world-building are slightly less convincing; I think the idea of a New Victorian Age with some groups revisiting a past society as a way of dealing with a changing world is a reasonable one in principle but I’m not sure it ever quite manages to be believable. Admittedly, I’m not sure it was even meant to be believable or if it is just meant to be a fusion of steampunk and cyberpunk elements. One thing that does feel a bit dated is the portrayal of China as being somewhere lagging behind the new manufacturing revolution rather than leading it, I wonder if this might have been written differently if Stephenson wrote it now rather than two decades ago.
The most memorable bit of technology in the book is the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an intricately designed educational device in the form of a tablet computer which was destined for the young daughter of a senior Neo-Victorian lord but which ends up in the hands of Nell, a precocious young girl living a seemingly doomed existence in the Shanghai slums. Some of the highlights of the book come from the scenes where Nell is using the Primer and Stephenson shows some of his best writing in these scenes as he manages to somehow make compelling a storyline where a young girl plays an educational video game using a fairy tale world to educate her about technology. Nell is a likeable and fascinating protagonist and the book is at its best when focusing on her efforts to escape from her mother’s abusive boyfriends and her attempts to try to first fit in to Neo-Victorian society and later to find her own way in the world. There are also some good supporting characters, such as the Constable who acts as a mentor to Nell or the voice actress who records the Primer’s narration and sets off on a seemingly hopeless quest to try to find the girl she is helping the Primer to raise. Unfortunately, I found some of the other characters to be less interesting, and the novel often started to become less compelling when it moved away from Nell’s story and focused on other characters such as the Primer’s designer and his efforts to infiltrate a mysterious cult. I think some other characters could have benefited from a bit more time being spent on them, for example it might have been interesting to see more of the contrasts between Nell and the two other girls who get copies of the Primer.
I think the book’s biggest problem is that having established a compelling premise and some interesting characters and ideas the book seems increasingly unsure about what to do with them (which seems a bit of a common problem in Stephenson’s books). New plot elements are introduced, principally a mysterious religious/technological cult known as the Drummers and Chinese revolutionaries marching on Shanghai, but unfortunately neither of the plot lines manages to be as compelling as Nell’s story and some parts of the plot start to get increasingly weird. The ending felt very rushed since key plot points were dealt with in fewer pages than some of the games Nell plays in the Primer and although I can see some of the points Stephenson was trying to make with the Drummers I still can’t say I entirely understand that particular plot or its resolution. The characterisation also suffers due to some large time jumps and some odd and poorly-explained decisions by some of the characters and it’s a pity that Nell seems to become less important to the story as it goes along.
I thought there were some great bits in the book, and despite its flaws I’d definitely recommend it but with a caveat that ultimately the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
Rating : 8 / 10