The left hand of darkness

The left hand of darkness /  Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally published 1969.

Here is where things start to get interesting. The left hand of darkness is a classic, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and a groundbreaking novel in feminist science fiction. A 1998 Locus reader’s poll put it at number 2, just behind Dune, on the list of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. (Although Ringworld and the Foundation trilogy both made it to the top ten, which calls the accuracy of the entire list into question for me, but that’s a post for another time) Yale professor Harold Bloom even went so far as to include The left hand of darkness in his list of books comprising the Western Canon.

Brief plot description

(spoiler free)

Told in an epistolary format, The left hand of darkness follows Genly Ai, representative of a galaxy-spanning collective called the Ekumen. He arrives on the planet Winter (called Gethen in the local language) in an attempt to convince the locals to join the Ekumen and share their cultural and scientific knowledge with the other worlds in the collective. The inhabitants of Gethen are “ambisexual”, normally without a biological sex except during mating periods, where depending on their surroundings and relationships they develop male or female attributes.

So how is it?

It’s an amazing work. Le Guin is an expert at painting vivid pictures of strange worlds and unusual cultures within tales of incredible philosophical depth.

The worlds that Le Guin creates serve as mirrors of the so-called “real world”. Her Hainish novels tend to each focus on one dominant theme. The left hand of darkness, probably her best known work outside of the Earthsea trilogy, examines the concepts of gender and sex and their influence on society. The book takes the perspective of an outsider in an examination of a culture completely different from anything on Earth, where a completely different biological system has created a world without sex or gender discrimination, because those concepts are largely meaningless. Genly Ai finds the inhabitants of Gethen alternatively confusingly masculine and feminine. This confusion prevents him from trusting those around him and serves as an impediment to his understanding of the local culture and the success of his mission.

The left hand of darkness really doesn’t have an in-depth plot. Like her other Hainish cycle novels, plot is of secondary importance.  Instead, The left hand of darkness is an exploration, both of he concept of sex and gender and of a physical place and culture. This is enhanced by the epistolary construction which allows for the inclusion of excerpts from the folklore and mythology of Gethen without disrupting the narrative.

Strengths:

A thought-provoking exploration of a world without gender

Contemplative without being boring

Portrays a complex culture that is still relateable

Weaknesses:

Plot is almost non-existent and is secondary to the novel’s philosophical themes

Recommendation:

This is one of those sf books that’s easy to recommend to those outside the genre. Its emphasis on philosophy over action makes it more accessible to fans of literary fiction, and readers who turn their noses up at the thought of science fiction can be assuaged by the fact that it’s part of the Canon. Still, this is not a book for readers looking for action and/or suspense. It’s not fun escapism, and its themes are so firmly rooted in the real world that anyone looking for escapism is going to be disappointed.

This is another one that, because of its age, is so widely read I have few opportunities to recommend it. A science fiction book club at a local public library decided to use The lathe of heaven rather than The left hand of darkness for their inaugural book as the former is less political than the latter. I’ve recommended it to a couple of people, a man in his early 50s who was not a regular science fiction reader and a woman in her early 30s who was a fan of Terry Pratchett; both enjoyed it and sought out more books by the author afterwards.

Other recommended books for people who liked this one:

The dispossessed / Ursula K. Le Guin (along with all the other Hainish books)

The Sparrow / Maria Doria Russell

Forever peace / Joe Haldeman

The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla

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