Two Sci-Fi Reviews: Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness and Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon

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As some of you may already know from following me on Twitter, or from reading previous blog posts, I am currently writing my master's dissertation on feminist science fiction. Considering I was originally intending to write on alternative universes in graphic novels, this topic really did come of of the blue for me when doing some initial research and I couldn't get the idea out of my mind from then on. Early into my reading then I learned that the overwhelming opinion was that I had to start by entering the world of Ursula Le Guin, who I'd heard about recently thanks to a BBC Radio 4 piece celebrating her 85th.

Oddly enough a few days later as I browsed through some second-hand stalls at my local bookshop, I stumbled across not one, not two, but three Le Guin titles for 80p a pop. Definitely not an offer I was going to turn down. After researching the stories of each (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and Four Ways to Forgiveness) I decided The Left Hand of Darkness would be the best place to start regarding my narrowed-down topic of 'utopias'. I must admit, this book was initially rather difficult to get into as someone who has never really read 'hard' sci-fi before. I found it fell into the same category of fantasy when you find yourself overwhelmed by odd names and places that you can't even attempt to pronounce in your head. I think I quite like that about the genre though, making you slow down in your reading an absorb every detail (very good for me, a serial speed-reader). My second issue was the pace of the story, though. It took about half of the volume for me to become invested in the characters and feel like progress was being made, but after that halfway point I was hooked. Although not a great deal happens in the duration of the novel, you get to know the characters, their motivations, their fears, and their desires.

A little background on The Left Hand of Darkness: Genly Ai is a representative sent from a coalition of planets to Gethen to broker a treaty with them in an attempt to get them to join said coalition. The residents of Gethen are 'ambisexual', meaning they spend the majority of the year sexually neutral, only becoming either male or female when they are required to mate. The story covers Genly's encounters with these people, his attempts to understand their ways, as well as his attempts to win favour of the ruling minority in order to add another planet to the coalition. There's a lot of politics involved and this is not a book for those who do not favour detail. Le Guin is an excellent world-builder and at no point did I find myself doubting the details she put in. My only wish was that she put more thought and detail into the idea of 'ambisexuality' as I feel there was so much she could have done with such an interesting topic. 

A week or so later I found myself in London with a group of friends in yet another second-hand book shop. Although not feminist science fiction or a piece on utopia, I picked up a copy of the famous Flowers for Algernon as I had been eager to read it for a while. The basic premise is that of a man with IQ 68, Charlie, who undergoes an experiment in order to artificially increase his intelligence. The experiment has previously been undertaken on a mouse, Algernon, and the story covers the experience of Charlie in his journey through life now as a more intelligent and aware human being, whilst witnessing what this experiment has done to Algernon. It's a heart-wrenching story at times and not something to be read in public. Charlie's childhood reveals itself before his eyes and helps him to understand why he is the way he is. This volume took me very little time to read and I would recommend to anyone wanting to get into science-fiction without heavy amounts of world-building or tech-speak. (You will probably cry.)

M x

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