Bending gender (till it breaks): Left Hand of Darkness vs. Ancillary Justice

lefthand ancillary

There are a lot of books, I think, that are classics in their field, required reading, not because they did their ideas best, but simply because they did them first. Lord of the Flies is my go-to example for this — it didn’t thrill me when I read it, because by that point I’d already read Galax-Arena and Battle Royale (among others) and seen those same ideas explored better elsewhere.

The critical buzz that greeted the release of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice suggested that it was doing just that to Left Hand of Darkness: that this was the gender-bending sci-fi of the new millennium, the long-awaited upgrade to LeGuin’s seminal work on the subject (by now nearly fifty years old). But after reading it, I couldn’t disagree more — Ancillary Justice doesn’t replace Left Hand of Darkness or retread that ground; rather, it complements LeGuin’s story in a way that I have never before seen two novels do, especially not novels written by different authors and separated by decades. In tandem, they explore how gendered pronouns influence the way we perceive and interpret human behavior. They come at the issue from different angles, and in so doing, call into question some of our most basic assumptions about masculine and feminine.

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The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (37/107)

I started reading a John Updike book, because it sounded dystopic and vaguely relevant to the Dredd fic I’m writing. Made it about twenty pages before I was like, “Man, fucking boring old people.”

Then I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and found fucking AWESOME old people.

The Sparrow tells one story in two parallel timelines: when humans discovered that they weren’t alone in the universe and eight brilliant people set out to make first contact, and then decades later when the single broken survivor came limping home.

This book is brilliant.

Ascendant Sun, by Catherine Asaro (21/107)

Space opera, starts out well enough — likable character with believable reactions, cool level of thought and detail put into the world-building. Then it didn’t exactly stall, but I put the book down around page 50 and found that I was resisting picking it up again. If I’d started this when I was fifteen, I expect that I would have plowed through it in a day without a second thought, but right now I have too much other shit to do. Books that are “not bad” are not going to make the cut, and this is going to remain unfinished.