When I was a teenager in suburban Toronto, we used to take the bus and subway to go downtown. When I went with my friends, we went to the Eaton Centre, tried on clothes, window-shopped, and often went up to Sam the Record Man to buy an LP. When I went alone, I went to Bakka Books, an SFF new/used bookstore on Queen Street W. I spent hours there and routinely traded in my paperbacks to get new ones. I bought Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon there when it was a new release (yup, it was the cover that made the sale) as well as many MANY other books. They were great at finding older titles that were no longer available new – at one point, I had a complete Michael Moorcock collection. I used to have a keeper bookcase of SFF classics in well-loved paperbacks, but when I moved one time, I just couldn’t bear another box of books and off they went. I’ve regretted that decision ever since.
Bakka Books still exists. It’s been sold a couple of times and moved a couple of times. Now it’s called Bakka-Phoenix Books and is near the U of T downtown campus, on Harbord Street. It’s owned by my friend Kate’s son, Ben, which I think is pretty cool.
Today I’ll talk about one book that’s still here from that collection, because I couldn’t bear to let it go. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is an amazing book. The premise is that an envoy (Genly Ai) goes to a planet (Winter), in order to convince them to join an intergalactic union. He’s a diplomat and an alien to this culture, and the book takes the form of his reports. The book is beautifully written. The world-building is intricate and vivid, perhaps particularly because Genly Ai is confused by the culture he visits and documents it with precision.
“Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is non-existent here. The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept….Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as “it”. They are not neuters. They are potentials; during each sexual cycle they may develop in either direction for the duration of that cycle. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more.
There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves; protected/protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards “him” a corresponding role dependent upon your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. It is an appalling experience for a Terran…”
This book was first published in 1967, but it raises enduring questions about gender assignments, roles and expectations. Genly Ai’s are shattered by his time on Winter and I enjoy watching his perspective change.
The other thing I love about this book is that Genly Ai believes it is his responsibility to give advice to the Gethenians. This doesn’t seem to go well, but he can’t understand why—until it’s explained to him that the Gethenians think it’s rude to give advice to others, that to do so is to imply that the recipient isn’t sufficiently bright or competent to figure things out on his/her own.
You can find the book on Goodreads, right here.
The 50th anniversary edition of The Left Hand of Darkness is on Amazon.com right here.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s website is here.