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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author Genevieve Valentine! Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, won the Crawford Award for Best Novel, and her work has received many honors, including nominations for the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Romantic Times Award for Best Fantasy. She is the current writer of DC’s Catwoman, and she is the author of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and the recently-released novel Persona.

Persona, by Genevieve Valentine Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine

The Right Hand of Light

“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

I’m one of those authors reluctant to talk about her influences too much; to cite exalted names invites unflattering comparison, and I’ve always suspected that half the time, a writer’s influences to be more obvious to her readers than to herself anyway. I’m happy to talk about inspiration for a particular work (it’s no secret that my ambivalence about the Miss Universe pageant helped spark the world of Persona), but when thinking of what first introduced me to the thrills of diplomatic fiction, I realized that it wasn’t just an influence; it was a milestone.

When I was probably too young, my dad gave me Dune. I couldn’t finish it, for reasons that at the time seemed vague and became increasingly clear as my political vocabulary developed. (I later found a soft spot a mile wide for the pair of utterly earnest, millinery-heavy miniseries the Sci-Fi channel made from it, but that’s no surprise – stock your miniseries with British actors gnawing on scenery and I am all yours.) But I appreciated the sheer depth of the world it offered; my literary interests were shifting, and I was actively on the lookout for a book to fall in love with.

When I was just the right age, my mother gave me The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s one of those formative books that has become two distinct entities in my memory. One is the book itself – snippets of dialogue, aphorisms, the image of a sled against a horizon of snow. The other is the experience of reading it, a hologram mapping the air above the pages; how I set it down twice because I feared it, then hid in my room and read all night just to finish it, how my worn secondhand copy lost the last page even as I turned it, and the sensation of falling into and down.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that requires a certain amount of into and down, not having a particular surfeit of forward. As a kid who never had an adventurous bone in her body, and thought children in books who borrowed things without permission were being awfully risky, it’s no surprise I found derring-do an iffy draw. Increasingly, I gravitated to books with more focus on world and character. (I also blame The Last Unicorn, one of my earliest solo reads, but that’s a whole other post.) The book’s unblinking social study of Gethen fit the bill. The gender politics, of course, were as revolutionary to me at that age as they were when the book first came out; to have so much of our gendered cultural bias laid out so plainly as an arbitrary construction – and to watch an erstwhile diplomat struggling with his own biases long after he’s aware enough to name them – was both great writing and something of a laundry list of red flags I’d carry with me into adolescence.

But just as interesting, to me, were the political machinations, that delicate web of the possible and impossible, all of which could never be known fully and definitely not in time to do you any good: the pointed legends, the prejudices of a Victorian travelogue, the oblique reproaches, the aphorisms that chill at the edges. Genly and Estraven seem just as often joined in stylized debate as in dialogue (this is a novel in which everything one says betrays one’s ideals, whether they intend it or not). There’s tension in the quietly poisonous standoff between Karhide and Orgoreyn, the endless social nuance of shifgrethor – as outwardly placid as the Bolton Strid, with a comparable mortality rate – but there are deeper tensions closer to home (everyone’s wise and their own worst enemy, often in the same breath), and The Left Hand of Darkness does these best.

The book has, of course, been such an influence on science fiction as a whole that citing it as an influence on my writing feels almost laughable (does food influence your hunger?). I can only say it’s become a very personal book for me – one of those I’ve never written critically about. And that might be for the best; even though I read it differently every time, just opening it summons that ghost of the girl who read it first, and I’m not in a hurry to disturb her.

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine is the author of Persona and of the critically acclaimed novels The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which won the Crawford Award for Best Novel, as well as nominations for the Nebula Award and the Romantic Times Best Fantasy of the Year.

Valentine is also the writer of DC’s CATWOMAN and her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Lightspeed, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, After, Teeth, and more; stories have been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, and have appeared in several Best of the Year anthologies.

Her nonfiction and reviews have appeared at NPR.org, The AV Club, Strange Horizons, io9.com, Lightspeed, Weird Tales, Tor.com, LA Review of Books, Fantasy Magazine, and Interfictions, and she is a co-author of pop-culture book Geek Wisdom. She lives in New York City.

Photo Credit: Ellen B. Wright