The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

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Publication Date: 1969
Publisher: Ace Books

Format: Paperback
Pages: 300
ISBN: 0441007317
Summary: A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change – their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

***

Review:

I read The Left Hand of Darkness as a buddy read with my friend Richard from RichardReads. This was a book that’s been on both of our TBRs for a fairly long time now, but personally, I don’t think it lived up to my expectations.

I was initially interested in The Left Hand of Darkness because of its exploration of gender roles in society, or how society would be impacted if its race is not sexually dimorphic. That is to say, the aliens, the Gethen, that live on the planet Winter are all of one gender. Once a cycle, they enter a fertility period where their bodies will randomly become the equivalent of male or female for reproduction, then revert to a genderless state until the start of the next cycle. We explore this society through the eyes of Genly Ai, a male human who’s been sent by his people to act as an envoy to the Gethen.

While I think the concept of a genderless society was interesting, I think the execution of this book was lacking. And I think that largely has to do with the way those ideas were presented being a product of its time. The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969, exactly fifty years ago. Now consider how much we as a society have progressed, especially when it comes to our views on gender and sexuality. As such, I found that many of the ‘revolutionary’ ideas presented in this book either a commonly held view today or simply outdated.

The biggest disappointment I had with this book was how the Gethen, this genderless race, were portrayed. Genly Ai initially struggles with how to interact with this race because he struggles to see them as anything but male, using male pronouns to refer to everyone he meets. However, what really bothered me as I read was that in chapters that come from a Gethen’s perspective, male pronouns were still used.

I think it’s reasonable to say that for most fantasy, especially adult fantasy, readers, we are used to reading books with entirely male casts, used to books where the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ are rarely, if ever, used. For a lot of us, ‘male’ is an ingrained default. Therefore, by Le Guin’s choice to stick with male pronouns, or ‘default’ pronouns, we the reader are allowed to slip into back into a comfortable mindspace, where our views on gender or how a genderless society would function aren’t challenged. Instead, we can subconsciously view the Gethens as male and proceed as normal. With a simple switch to ‘she’, ‘they’, or a made-up pronoun, this concept would have left a much harder impact. (as a side note, the choice of a default ‘she’ is why Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is so fascinating)

Besides the pronoun choice, I also didn’t really like the pacing. The book is very cleanly split into three parts: world building, court politics, and survival story, with choppy transitions. Personally, I didn’t find the world building nor the court politics sections all that engaging, aside from the chapter that read like a scientific paper describing the Gethen. Like the planet of Winter itself, I found those sections rather bland and uninteresting. I did like the survival section, but I think that was because it was the one section that really focused on the relationship between Genly and his Gethen friend Estraven, and the only part where Genly actually begins to see the Gethen as more than an all-male race.

Overall, I rated this book a 3/5. While I’m sure it was revolutionary during the time it was published, reading it in 2019 left me wanting.

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