The Left Hand of Darkness is my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novel, and quite possibly my favorite of all SF novels.
I’ve read the novel many times, delighting in Le Guin’s prose and admiring how she unapologetically immerses her readers in the world, minus expository cliffnotes, so that our experience is akin to Genly Ai’s first contact—everything at once, swamped with alien mystery, so that from the very first we have to puzzle our way along, piecing together the layers of significance and meaning.
And when we shift to Estraven’s native point of view, and see Estraven puzzling over Genly, and then shift to the Gethenian folklore, and layers build on layers of meaning, and the two characters come together, struggling to connect—oh, I’m swept away.
That’s what I love about the best science fiction: it takes me there.
After reading glowing reviews of K.J. Bishop’s first fantasy novel, The Etched City, and having a friend recommend the book to me, I bought a copy and settled down to read it. Now that I’ve (finally) finished, I must say I’m disappointed.
The prose is beautiful, and Bishop knows how to use her large vocabulary. But the book is a slog: unpleasant characters, soggy plot, imprecise theological maundering. The novel is ambitious, which I admire, and it flashes with occasional brilliance that lights up the page. But I kept waiting for something to pull the disparate clever flashes and promising elements together to make the reading worthwhile. That something never materialized—at least, not for me.
I can’t help comparing The Etched City to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which does a more effective job of handling theological reflection and encounters with the strange. Damnation, redemption, and salvation are fully fleshed in Russell’s characters and plot, rather than being nattered over primarily at mealtime, as in Bishop’s book. And the alien culture in The Sparrow is a more compellingly complex counterpoint to human expectations (religious and otherwise) than Bishop’s rose-and-blood infused city.
It’s not just my preference for science fiction that makes Russell’s the better book.