I Want to Say Something to Richard Dawkins

Dear Richard,

I was unfortunate enough to find out what you tweeted yesterday about aborting babies with Down Syndrome, and I feel the need to tell you about an uncle of mine that I never met. My father was born in 1903 in a Mennonite farming community in Ohio. His mother had 9 children; the last, Clayton, was born with Down Syndrome. My dad didn’t speak a lot about this brother, except to say that because it became impossible for the family to cope with having him at home, he was sent to live in an institution, where he later died. My grandmother got a call from the institution when this happened. She was told that he had died of pneumonia (who knows it this is true) and I always knew that this had profoundly affected my dad, who was not someone given to great displays of emotion.

After my dad died in 1996, I found, hidden inside what we called his ‘taboret’ – a cabinet on wheels with a glass top where he mixed paints, next to his easel – a tiny newspaper clipping that he had clearly kept for a very long time. And this is a remarkable fact, because he lived a life that took him from being a hobo riding the rails during the Great Depression, to tours as a photographer on US Navy ships, to an artist’s studio in Paris, to Maine, where I grew up and where he died. He lived to be 92. So how he managed to hold onto that tiny scrap of paper all that time is a mystery to me.

The clipping was the obituary for my uncle in a local paper. And when I read it the first time, I could hardly believe what I was reading. I’d always assumed that my uncle had been a teenager when he was sent away to an institution, but this wasn’t the case. He was 9 years old when he died; a boy.









So for you to speak like this, as if these lives would be better unlived, as if they are some kind of unbearable burden to society, make me angrier than I have been in a long time, and that is saying something. Can you not see that this thinking is what sets the stage for isolation and mistreatment because it dehumanises people with Down Syndrome?

I am honestly ashamed to work at an institution with which you are affiliated.

Yours sincerely,

Penelope Schenk

Edited at 11:06 21/08/2014: remembered that I found the clipping not in a box, as I initially stated, but inside my dad’s taboret.



this could be us but you playin

Just a short post to clarify the reason why I stormed out of another’ left’ organisation yesterday. Last year I resigned from the SWP, which was a simple call – the leadership continued to lie, dissemble and promote rape apologism. A group of us left and founded the IS Network, and as anyone who was there at the time can attest, I put a lot of hard work into making a go of it. The reasons why I left and was then prevented from returning are complex, and I won’t go into them here. Finally, we come to Left Unity – I attended its founding conference last year with high hopes, despite an awareness that many in the new party had views very different from my own.

Since then, I have tried to participate in the LU Womens Caucus, and the working group, called (no I don’t like this term) ‘prostitution working group’ or something similar. I had to leave the caucus mailing list because I kept getting into angry exchanges with people promoting a ‘saviour/victim’ narrative around sex work and saying things I believe to be profoundly wrong-headed. I did participate in the working group blog to some extent, posting about the revelations around Somaly Mam’s anti-trafficking organisation.

Yesterday, I learned that the LUWomensCaucus twitter account had RT’d a link to an upcoming event featuring Julie Bindel and other Rad Fems, who do not consider transgender women to be women. I was unhappy about this, and said so on the LU Facebook page, asking whether this was true and voicing my discomfort with such a move. I then engaged in a rather terse discussion with someone who told me that Bindel was a very good speaker, and persisted in calling trans women ‘men’. Eventually others weighed in, and I was called a troll and a bully. It was suggested that I might have a hidden agenda. I finally had enough, and did something that was probably in the works anyway – left the party.

There seems to be an idea that we must live and let live and accept other points of view graciously, and be polite about them. Well I can’t. If it is impossible to defend the human rights of transgender people and sex workers vigorously and without conceding ground in the context of a political organisation, I won’t be in one. Transgender people are being assaulted and murdered simply for being who they are. US police departments are gleefully tweeting raids on sex workers as public entertainment. Race comes into play. It is not a small point of principle. I have no hidden agenda. I am a rather run-of-the-mill cishet white woman. But I can read, and learn, and shed my outdated ideas about gender, orientation, sex work etc. Those who refuse to do so cause real harm, and I want no part of it.

Above, by Isla Morley

Hodderscape Review ProjectSPOILER ALERT: This review does give away one of the major plot twists. TW: rape, sexual violence.

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. I was skeptical after reading the blurb on the back; it sounded a bit ‘ripped from the headlines’ for my taste — teenage girl abducted and imprisoned by local man for years. But I was pleasantly surprised; Morley writes really well, and many passages are finely-crafted and affecting. My biggest criticism is that the too-neat ending is not as satisfyingly complex and ambiguous as what precedes it.

The book has two parts; Below and Above. The story is told by Blythe, a resident of Eudora, Kansas; she’s sixteen when she is abducted and held prisoner in a disused missile silo by Dobbs Hordin. Hordin is known to Blythe because he works in the school library; in the past he has urged her to read survivalist books, which her best friend Mercy finds troubling. The day of Eudora’s Horse Theives Picnic, he lures Blythe into his car with the lie that her brother has been in a car accident. He drives her to a disused missile silo, fitted out in anticipation of impending Armageddon, and the first half of the book takes place there. Blythe is in her early thirties when she finally escapes with her son.

The period of Blythe’s imprisonment contains both gut-wrenching, sickening abuse and mundane, sometimes comical efforts at accommodation with a situation she cannot change. Not that she doesn’t try. Morley makes it clear that Blythe fights back hard and tries to escape from Dobbs. Her gradual realisation that this is not just a one-time encounter but a long-term, obsessively planned kidnapping underpinned by a religion-infused survivalism is heart-breaking and convincing. Early on she makes concerted efforts to incapacitate him and gain control of the keys:

He exits through the door, walking backward, as is his custom now. He will come back in a few hours or a few days and enter the room just as cautiously. He is used to stumbling over tripwires, or putting his foot in a pot of hot water, or finding a chair poised above his head. It’s why he wears a helmet when he comes. Sometimes, he’ll have on the thickly padded false sleeve like the kind they use to train police dogs. The bite marks took a long time to heal.

We see Blythe gradually losing touch with her former life:

It’s getting hard to remember what conversation sounds like. I cannot hear my family’s voices in my head anymore. If I try real hard, I can feel them. Suzie’s irritation a slap; Gerhard’s alto a stiff indifference; Theo’d baby gibberish a tickle. Mama’s words are sometimes as warm as a heavy quilt, sometimes the abrasive side of a scouring pad. Just about anything Daddy says is a cool compress.

While Dobbs’ stated intention in kidnapping Blythe is the impending global catastrophe and not his own desires, the day comes when a violent struggle between them ends in rape. Later, after Dobbs insists on a ‘wedding’ ceremony, he feels entitled to demand ‘Married Time.’ Ultimately, Blythe bears one stillborn daughter and a son she names Adam. Morley manages to portray Dobbs as a three-dimensional character without ever excusing his villainy. He may be delusional, but he is also a cruel and manipulative man. Some of the best writing in the book manages to capture the oppressive reality of Blythe’s day-to-day existence. When children (first a boy brought into the silo by Dobbs, and then her own son) are added to the mix, Blythe makes extraordinary efforts to shield them from both the truth that they are captives and the worst of Dobbs’ anger. For Adam, she plays into Dobbs’ elaborate fiction (as she believes it to be) that a great calamity has taken place.

ABOVE by Isla Morley

ABOVE by Isla Morley

When Adam is fifteen, he and Blythe have a heated altercation with Dobbs. When Dobbs threatens to lock Blythe up, she stabs him with a crochet hook, killing him. She and Adam can escape. It’s over.

The kicker is that once they emerge from the silo, Blythe realises that the lie she has told Adam, that there has been a great disaster above, is literally true. The reader has to re-evaluate Dobbs, as distasteful as that is; he wasn’t in fact lying about things going badly wrong on the surface. The sights they see on the laborious trek to Eudora and home gradually confirms this to Blythe. At the same time, we have the teenage Adam coming to terms with the reality of life outside the silo:

While I eat, Adam writes his name in the sand again. He does it every time we stop. Putting his stamp on the world, I suppose. He takes off Dobbs’ shoes and rolls up his pant legs. He looks at me hopefully, and I nod. He undoes the knot around his waist, hands me his end of the leash, and approaches the water’s edge cautiously. When the water surges to greet him, he scurries back. When it retreats, Adam advances. He calls to me that the lake is playing copycat. After many back-and-forths, Adam finally braves the water on tiptoes.

Eventually the pair are ‘rescued’ and taken to some sort of institution, where they receive medical care and learn more about the nuclear disaster that has poisoned the entire planet and led to societal breakdown. Blythe’s unease about their hosts proves warranted when she discovers that Adam, a pristine genetic specimen unaffected by radiation fallout, is a hot commodity for use in regenerating the species. They are befriended and helped to escape by a man who works at the facility, and learn of the underground (literally) community of survivors that lives in a disused drainage tunnel. They shelter there to avoid the bounty hunters who are after Adam. Eventually, Blythe and Adam do make it back to her hometown, and she is reunited with her friend Mercy and teenage crush Arlo, who is now the sheriff. Devastation is all around. Blythe resolves to make a life of sorts, and moves into her grandparent’s old farm with Adam.

I found the ending disappointing; I wanted something less obvious, less “all is redeemed by the joy of being a mother.” Blythe spells it out:

If I am ever to be granted the luxury of a tombstone, I would have it say simply: MOTHER. Somewhere along the line, I stopped being the abducted girl. Forget Blythe Hallowell. Remember me only as a mother to three of the finest. If ever there is to be an obituary for me, I hope it will say more about my children than me.

In one way, she is refusing to let the crime her define her, but in doing so, she erases her self.

I can’t end the review without mentioning the extraordinary depictions of landscape in Above. I was honestly surprised to learn that Morley did not grow up in Kansas, so heartfelt were her depictions. The following is as good an example as any:

Home has a smell. Strong, sweet, pungent as the redbuds that used to bloom along the ditch in front of our house. Home smells of wild plums and meadows thick with lavender, of violets and rose verbena. It’s the smell of stiff, winter-weary prairies bending into color.

If Morley’s future work is a bit edgier, and takes the reader in more unexpected directions, I think it could be exceptional.



‘Revision’ at Luna Station Quarterly

lsq-018-ml-150x225Very pleased to say that my story ‘Revision’ is up at the excellent Luna Station Quarterly now. Contains punctuation, proofreading and weirdness. Do let me know what you think if you have a chance to read it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

Hodderscape Review ProjectAt some point during high school, Stranger in a Strange Land was on my English class reading list. The night before the final exam, I still hadn’t read it, so in desperation I employed the dubious strategy of repeatedly opening the book at random and scanning short snippets. This worked well enough — I must have passed — but it’s a terrible thing to do to a writer, and when Hodderscape selected The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for the Review Project, I vowed to read this Heinlein with more care. I don’t think it’s aged terribly well. It’s badly let down by its Tea Party-ish politics, and a big helping of racism and sexism. But I can’t damn it entirely — I enjoyed some aspects of it a great deal.

The story concerns events surrounding a revolution on the moon colony of Luna in 2075-76, recounted by the loquacious and jovial computer technician Manuel ‘Mannie’ O’Kelly Garcia. Mannie is a native of Luna, which started as an off-world open prison to house convicted criminals from Earth. (Heinlein alludes to Australia, calling Book One (of three) That Thinkum Dinkum.) Over time, Luna has developed its own rough-and-ready frontier culture over multiple generations. Mannie’s language is English with a heavy dose of Russian (Soviet) influence:

Is a virus self-aware? Nyet. How about oyster? I doubt it. A cat? Almost certainly. A human? Don’t know about you, tovarishch, but I am.

Nominally, Luna is controlled by a Warden on behalf of the Lunar Authority, but in reality a rugged vigilante justice seems to hold sway. Mannie tells us early on that transports whose manners are found wanting often suffer ‘accidents’ soon after their arrival. The small band of revolutionaries to which Mannie belongs is couched in the trappings and language of historic communal struggles, but these comrades are not so much socialists as libertarians; their primary motivation for rising up is to free themselves from price controls imposed on them by the Lunar Authority. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

When Mannie meets female revolutionary Wyoming Knott at a protest meeting, many in attendance wear Liberty Caps, a reference to the red Phrygian caps worn by French and American revolutionaries. Just to hammer the point home, the platform sports a banner reading LIBERTY! EQUALITY! FRATERNITY! Mannie provides some wry commentary on the discussion at such meetings:

Semantic content was low to negative. One bloke proposed that we march on Warden’s Residence, “shoulder to shoulder,” and demand our rights. Picture it. Do we do this in tube capsules, then climb out one at a time at his private station? What are his bodyguards doing? Or do we put on p-suits and stroll across surface to his upper lock?

After a narrow escape from the gathering’s bloody finale when the Warden’s bodyguards storm the meeting, Wyoh and Mannie are soon holed up in a hotel room plotting, and enlist the help of the Professor, eminence grise of the fledgling revolt. He calls himself a member of the Fifth International (which includes Communists, Fourths, Single-Taxers and others — I had a chuckle at the notion of this many ‘left’ groups finding common cause) as well as a ‘rational anarchist’. In his vision, “…there is no such thing as a ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.” We’re veering dangerously close to Ayn Rand territory here.

Into this mix Heinlein throws the Singularity; one of the Authority computers, extended and upgraded for years, has become self-aware, and the first human to know about it is Mannie. Almost from the beginning, man and AI develop a warm and trusting relationship.

‘Mike’ the computer is one of the most engaging characters in the book; I found his abrupt and unexplained silence at the end, where he refused or was unable to speak anymore, bizarre. I can’t understand why Heinlein leaves the reader guessing about this. Is Mike for some reason now unable to speak, or does he choose not to? We don’t know. Conversations between Mannie and Mike are some of my favourite bits of the book:

This self-panicker rippled lights like an advertising display. I waited for his guffaws to cease before I went on. “You thinking of issuing more trick checks? Don’t.”


“Very not. Mike, you want to discuss nature of humour. Are two types of jokes. One sort goes on being funny forever. Other sort is funny once. Second time is dull. This joke is second sort.”

Mike’s almost obsessive interest in jokes is a running gag throughout the book; he is always asking ‘Man’ to go over lists of jokes and tell him which are always funny and which are funny only once.

Essentially, the ability to harness Mike’s enormous power gives Mannie, Wyoh and the Professor what they need to successfully rebel; Mike can imitate voices, listen in to private meetings, alter environmental settings in the Warden’s house. The trio dreams up a giant catapult with which they can lob rocks (of which they have plenty) at ‘Terra’. They are joined in their efforts by Stu, a like-minded arrival from Terra with an aristocratic background. Events precipitate the overthrow of the Warden sooner than expected, the revolutionaries gain control of Luna, and Mannie and the Professor go on a diplomatic mission to bargain with the Federated Nations back on Earth.

Ultimately this effort is unsuccessful, and when they narrowly make their escape and return to Luna, hostilities begin in earnest. Mike, who in addition to his other duties is also masquerading as revolutionary leader “Adam Selene” and radical poet Simon Jester,  makes the catapult start lobbing rocks toward pre-announced locations on Earth. In 2076. In the end, the battle for Luna Free State ‘succeeds’ after the inevitable Declaration of Independence on July 4 (groan), but it is followed by a messy and fractious post-revolutionary period, leaving Mannie to survey the results in the wake of the Prof’s death:

…Prof underrated yammerheads. They never adopted any of his ideas. Seems to be a deep instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn’t forbidden… Oh, I backed him! But now I wonder. Are food riots too high a price to pay to let people be? I don’t know,
Don’t know any answers.

Unfortunately Heinlen reaches for racial stereotypes relatively frequently. Here is Mannie on a Japanese comrade:

Comrade Clayton turned out to be a young Japanese — not too young, but they all look young till suddenly look old.

And there are plenty of other instances:

…we Red-Indianed around looked, using helmet binox.


(Could dump two Chinee down in one of our maria and they would get rich selling rocks to each other while raising twelve kids. Then a Hindu would sell retail stuff he got from them wholesale — below cost at fat profit. We got along.)

And then we come to the sexism, despite Heinlein’s creation of a determined and capable female protagonist in Wyoh. Mannie proudly explains how women on Luna are not to be messed with; even touching them against their will can lead to harsh punishment or death. But the reason for this recognition of women’s bodily autonomy is — wait for it — a shortage of women; they’re a limited natural resource. And even this supposed power does not exempt them from being shipped out to the remote catapult site to cook for the men.

Some of this is the bog-standard sexism of the era. When Wyoh is first introduced to Mannie, it is as a ‘nice little girl’, and when he looks her up and down and whistles, she NODS TO THANK HIM. There are more examples sprinkled throughout, like a low-level hum in the background.

So what did I like?

The moon. I may be a big sucker for moon stories in particular; I adored Stowaway to the Moon, a 70’s made-for-TV movie. Maybe it has to do with being able to actually see the moon in the sky so regularly — at any rate it easily captures my imagination. Luna’s underground civilisation is vividly drawn and richly textured; I could picture the family tunnels where the large multi-generational married families live. I can only imagine that the notion of a moon outpost was an even more exciting prospect in the heady early days of the first moon landings.

And above all, Mannie’s voice. Despite the effort involved in reading the invented dialect that Loonies speak (no, you probably wouldn’t call them that in 2014) he was an entertaining and agreeable narrator. I was happy to listen to him for the duration; his speech was funny and playful.

In spite of the flaws and oddities I’ve noted above, it’s a book I will remember with some fondness.

The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams

Hodderscape Review ProjectI enjoyed this debut fantasy novel immensely. I loved Williams’ characters, particularly Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven. She’s terrific; a hard-bargaining, tough-talking fighter from a sea-faring island who raises the stakes for future fantasy heroines. When we first meet her, she’s holding court in a rowdy tavern, winning at cards and threatening an aggrieved party with her trusty daggers.  Next we’re introduced to Sebastian, a one-time Ynnsmouth Knight who, exiled for reasons we don’t yet know, is now Wydrin’s partner in the “sell-sword’ trade. Refreshingly, their relationship, while affectionate and close, is not romantic. The next major player to enter the tavern is the white-haired Lord Aaron Frith, whose torture and subsequent escape from his family castle in the Blackwood begin the book in dramatic fashion. When Frith meets Wydrin, Williams has some fun at the expense of a familiar fantasy stereotype:

Frith had imagined a tall curvaceous woman, with hair as red as blood tumbling unbidden to her waist, a pair of green eyes as playful and cruel as a cat’s, and armour that perhaps did not leave much to the imagination. In truth the Copper Cat was a young woman of average height with short, carroty hair, freckles across her nose and almost every inch of her covered in boiled leather armour.

In the tavern, a deal is done: the ‘copper promise’ of the title. Frith contracts with Wydrin and Sebastian to accompany him to the ancient Citadel of Creos, where it is believed that mages once incarcerated gods in the final act of an epic battle. Sebastian and Wydrin were already en route to the Citadel, having planned to meet up with their friend Gallo. The original plan was Gallo’s — break into the Citadel and steal the riches hidden there. To their dismay, however, Gallo hadn’t waited for them, but had forged ahead, Citadel map in hand. After two more rounds of ale, Frith and Wydrin settle on a price and agree to set out the following morning. In one of many such humorous moments, Wydrin shows more enthusiasm for the venture than her male companions:

Wydrin lifted her tankard. ‘To sacking the Citadel!’ Sebastian and Frith raised their own drinking vessels reluctantly, and she crashed her tankard into theirs, spilling more than a little over Lord Frith’s embroidered cuff.

The adventure inside the Citadel sets into motion events that will occupy our trio (and a Gallo of sorts) for the rest of the novel. Events underground trigger the release of the dragon god Y’Ruen, and the birth of her brood army of ruthless female killers. Far from riches beyond their wildest dreams, our band of adventurers has reaped a whirlwind of evil. The rest of the story takes us across Ede as Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith undertake a series of quests. Frith, motivated by a desire to reclaim his family’s seat in the Blackwood, uses his newly acquired but barely controlled powers to spirit the three of them. Soon after their arrival,  they visit the village of Pinehold, which is being menaced by a murderous tyrant. Eventually, they fight to liberate it, and then turn their attention to other battles, most importantly the ongoing destruction being wreaked by Y’Ruen and her daughters.

Pinehold and the strange tunnels beneath it will eventually play a part in the fight to rid Ede of the dragon and her brood. The twists and turns that lead to the ultimate contest with Y’Ruen are more than can be sketched in a review, and I wonder if less complexity might have been desirable; I sometimes found myself struggling to remember where we were off to next, and why. Still, at every step, we encounter memorable characters who, while recognisable denizens of the broad fantasy universe, are drawn with the lightness of touch and sense of humour that characterises Williams’ style.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

A recurring and compelling theme in the book is the importance and power of language. The ancient power that Frith gains in the Citadel can only be controlled and directed by ancient words, and he must learn them in order to bend it to his will. Words also fascinate the few members of the brood army who teach themselves to read, and, defying Y’Ruen, give themselves names.

This is not a story for the squeamish; there are some very evil, violent and bloodthirsty people in Ede; even the noble Sebastian has some dealings with Prince of Pain Bezcavar until he thinks better of it. From the start, we are not spared the gory details — the following is a description of Frith after he’s endured torture:

One side of his face was slick with blood, and one hand was red to the wrist. His chest was livid with burn marks, and Bethan could smell the hot, sweet scent of scorched flesh.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. Williams has a marvellous imagination; some things stood out were the Sea-Glass Road, tunnels that spell out powerful words when viewed from above, and a Rookery guarded by killer doves… I look forward to reading about the future exploits of this quirky band.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin

The Hodderscape Review Project

It seems fitting to end a sometimes unsettling year with the admission that I didn’t like a book often cited as an SFF classic. Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the latest work in The Hodderscape Review Project, epitomises for me the best and the worst of “SFF” generally, beginning as it does with a genuinely interesting and novel idea but falling short in the execution.

Much of the story is related by Genly Ai, envoy to an icy planet that hasn’t yet discovered space flight. His account is interspersed with information from other sources: local legends, scientific observations and written accounts from other eras. An organisation called the Ekumen, made up of eighty-plus planets, had previously sent a landing party of investigators to Gethen/Winter. Now Genly Ai is on the planet alone, hoping to persuade its two nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn, to join the Ekumen, at which point he will summon a nearby spaceship. Uniquely among known humans, Gethenians are ‘ambisexual’: taking on a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ physiology for a short period each month when they have sex and are said to be ‘in kemmer’. The rest of the time they are sexually inactive. This is a hugely interesting premise. And yet…

The Left Hand of Darkness

Throughout, I was disappointed with LeGuin’s treatment of Gethenian gender dynamics. She tells us how the system functions in practice, through Genly Ai’s words, those of his Gethenian friend Estraven and some rather smug, clinical investigator’s field notes on the topic that make up Chapter 7: The Question of Sex. While the reader is left in no doubt about the mechanics of Gethenian ambisexuality, I wanted more, and different, information. The 40th Anniversary edition, which I read in e-book format before obtaining a paperback of the 1969 text, included a piece among extra items at the end called “Coming of Age in Karhide.” This was a vivid, first-person description of kemmering that, had it been included in the original, near the beginning, might have gone some way toward remedying a dearth of immediacy and detail that left me less engaged in the narrative than I might otherwise have been.

As a contemporary reader who has encountered sophisticated world-building, I found much about the planet “Winter” and its two civilisations unsatisfying and downright strange. I couldn’t get past the presence of Earth technologies on such a distant and isolated planet. Radio? It’s hard to recognise our own consumer electronics from one generation to the next, so the idea of radio on isolated Gethen is just… well, bizarre. The Ansible, something new and inexplicable, was much easier to accept.

My stylistic quibbles are numerous. After a promising beginning featuring a parade reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s weird Gormenghast ceremonies, the first thing we hear Genly Ai say is, “It’s hot. It’s really hot.” The reply, from powerful courtier Estraven, is no more inspired: “So it is.” The rest of the text is peppered with similarly ungainly phrases:

My conscience itched a little, but I did not scratch it. I wanted to discourage him from coming to me. That this involved humiliating him was unfortunate.

Food at the Transient-Houses was dull but plentiful, lodging decent, lacking only privacy. Even that was supplied in some measure by the reticence of my fellow travellers.

Even the planet’s name is wanting: a very cold icy planet, it is dubbed’ Winter’ by the Ekumen — why not something more evocative? Other conceits work well; “kemmering” is good, as is “shifgrethor”, the Karhide sense of personal honour. However, detailed information about Gethenian calendar and clock systems provided at the end left me completely cold — Karhidish month names for instance (Thern, Thanern, Nimmer… ) and statements like “The 26-day month is divided into two halfmonths of 13 days.”

This is not to say that there’s nothing of merit here; certain ideas are wonderfully resonant, like the Gethenian practice of always calling the present year ‘Year 0’. The friendship that develops between Genly Ai and Estraven as they make a difficult journey across the ice is well drawn, particularly in sentences like these:

I could not know, or ask, what lay behind his words: it had cost him too much to say the little he had said.

His loyalty extended without disproportion to things, the patient, obstinate, reliable things that we use and get used to, the things we live by. He missed the sledge.

There are unfortunate passages that I suspect LeGuin would handle differently now. To have the aliens unable to pronounce the letter “l” in Genly’s name, and substituting an “r” sound, is a discordant note. The envoy’s repeated negative characterisations of what he considers “feminine” characteristics are also regrettable. In these respects, the text has not aged well.

Overall, I felt that an interesting premise was burdened with too much information and not enough memorable language. I finished it with a sense that, while I’d been told a lot about Gethen and its inhabitants, I didn’t really know anything.


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