The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin



Thousands of years from now, the myriad colony worlds of Hain (including Earth) are being reunited under a new interstellar government, the Ekumen. Genly Ai is the First Envoy, who sets foot alone onto the surface of the frigid planet of Winter (Gethen to its inhabitants) to bring offers of trade, peace and alliance to the people of the planet. However, the genderless inhabitants (who only have sexual urges and genders for a brief period once a month) are sceptical of Ai's claims, and he soon finds himself a pawn of political factions in two neighbouring countries eager to use or discard him as they see fit.

The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969. It is set in a shared future history which Le Guin has used for several other novels and short stories, though foreknowledge of these other works is completely unnecessary to read this book. The novel also has a formidable reputation as one of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction novels in the history of the genre, noted for its complex themes and its use of metaphors to tackle a wide variety of literary ideas.

The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious, but these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers.

Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet's cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.

Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen's past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology (there's also an appendix which handily collates this information into an easy-to-find collection). The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai's bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties, whilst Estraven's characterisation is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light.

The themes that the novel tackles extend far beyond the obvious ones of gender and climate. Duality (expressed in Ai's discussion of Taoism with Estraven), faith, the difficulties of communication even when language is shared and politics are also discussed and examined. But where The Left Hand of Darkness impresses is that these thematic discussions are woven into the narrative in a manner that is seamless and stands alongside a compelling plot. The book's climax, where the two main characters have to traverse a 700-mile-wide icecap with limited supplies, is a fantastic adventure narrative in its own right.

Complaints are few. Written in the 1960s, Le Guin presents a few outdated ideas on gender roles and sexuality that were common at the time, but these are minor issues at best.

Overall, The Left Hand of Darkness (*****) is a smart and intelligent read that has a lot to say and does so in a manner that is page-turning, compelling, relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly concise (the novel clocks in at a slim 250 pages in paperback). One of the all-time classics of the genre and a book that more than deserves its reputation. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 
Good review of a great book. There is obviously an art to being able to cram a variety of themes and concepts, wonderful characterisation and a tight plot into one short book. This art is sadly not much practised anymore. Books like this one are well worth the read if only to see that it is possible to write densely layered, thoughtful, complex material without wallowing in "faff". Completely refreshing.
 
Seconded, definitely. It's a dense book in the best way possible, with lots of ideas. As you say in the review, it's also rather exciting. The rescue from the prison camp is good as well. It makes a good companion to The Disposessed.
 
Have started this, but am struggling to get into it. I've and read the first chapter - approx. 5,000 words - and nothing much really happens, or is said. There are subtleties in conversation, the struggles of conversing from one culture to another. But so far 5k words seems overkill to make that point.

I know this is regarded as a classic book, but is it still a relevant story, or simply a product of its time when sexual diversity was effectively taboo? Simply asking. :)
 
I think it is well worth reading, Brian, so I'd encourage you to persevere, but it's not an easy or, at first, particularly exciting read, though later, as the others have said, it becomes much more so. I think it was addressing issues of gender and sexuality which were still provocative at the time, not least the male/female dominant/subservient roles of our own societies, regrettably still relevant, and it's certainly not simply a period piece. For myself, I emerged someone ambivalent. My thoughts from when I read it:
Well written, with some touches I loved, but like in The Dispossessed, she sets up two contrasting and antipathetic systems of politics/government which seemed a little schematic to me – perhaps an inevitable preoccupation during the Cold War. I was also far from convinced by the main character, Genly Ai, who is a kind of ambassador for first contact situations, and whose job is to persuade Gethen to join an inter-planetary union. In the very first chapter he leaps to a conclusion about the motives of the other main character, Estraven, which is so irrational and without context that I never recovered from thinking he was a complete prat, which I'm pretty sure isn't the reaction I was intended to have. Towards the end we are explicitly told that Ai was previously unable to trust Estraven because the latter is both male and female. Of course! His male side is compromised! A woman is inherently untrustworthy! That's unfair, since Le Guin makes it clear it's the two together which Ai can't handle, but it still brought me up short, not least as Ai also says that women are alien to him...
 
Do keep with it, Brian - if you want to. I enjoy the book for its travelogue aspects as much as its merits as a story of gender and sexuality. Not a perfect book, but I found myself happily exploring the world Le Guin created.
 
Good review of a great book. There is obviously an art to being able to cram a variety of themes and concepts, wonderful characterisation and a tight plot into one short book. This art is sadly not much practised anymore. Books like this one are well worth the read if only to see that it is possible to write densely layered, thoughtful, complex material without wallowing in "faff". Completely refreshing.
Did it have anything to say overall, though? It seemed to be sorting through a mass of cultural data. The idea behind the book seems to me to be that they were nowhere and doing nothing that amounted to anything. Which would explain the nihilistic-sounding title.
 
Do keep with it, Brian - if you want to. I enjoy the book for its travelogue aspects as much as its merits as a story of gender and sexuality. Not a perfect book, but I found myself happily exploring the world Le Guin created.
It wasn't a very happy world, though.
 
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
I'd say it's about matriculation more than anything else, if I have that word right, the subtle influxes into and out of cultures. Genli Ai's position as a pawn in a big game between political or governmental factions is similar to that of the protagonist in Asimov's THE STARS, LIKE DUST, and I'd imagine the author has read that book and wants her own viewpoint on foundations and empires.
 
My major complant was that there was still too much of a masculinist shade to it, with children being referred to as 'sons', 'the king' etc. The use of pronouns was a problem- yea, it's damn near impossible in English , but it does tilt the reader's perspective to have gender-neutral characters referred to as as 'he'.

'Hir/hirs' could have been used for the objective and possessive, but 's/he' or 'hse' would have been too awkward- not to mention leading to a typesetters strike, when they would have to for, example, change to 'she' when Estrevan was in kemmer.

The Judge said:
In the very first chapter he leaps to a conclusion about the motives of the other main character, Estraven, which is so irrational and without context that I never recovered from thinking he was a complete prat, which I'm pretty sure isn't the reaction I was intended to have.

It's been a long time since I've read it- what was that?

Towards the end we are explicitly told that Ai was previously unable to trust Estraven because the latter is both male and female. Of course! His male side is compromised! A woman is inherently untrustworthy! That's unfair, since Le Guin makes it clear it's the two together which Ai can't handle, but it still brought me up short, not least as Ai also says that women are alien to him...

Hmmm...isn't that kind of the point though? Le Guin is saying that our culture is patriarchal, so naturally Genli Ai would react that way- probably a stronger point when it was written- or maybe not, considering current events.

And in those days at least, she probably would have considered most males as seeing women as alien.
 
The Judge said:
In the very first chapter he leaps to a conclusion about the motives of the other main character, Estraven, which is so irrational and without context that I never recovered from thinking he was a complete prat, which I'm pretty sure isn't the reaction I was intended to have.

It's been a long time since I've read it- what was that?
Sorry to be so slow in coming back to you, but I had to hunt out my copy and re-read it to refresh my memory!

Anyway, it's when he's told by Estraven that "I am no longer acting on your behalf with the king." He's just been welcomed into Estraven's home and had a good meal, and he knows these courtiers speak obliquely and have to avoid losing face, so there's obviously something important going on, but his immediate thought isn't "What's happened behind the scenes?" and an attempt to probe and understand the shifting currents within the court (he's spoken to Tibe and it's obvious that person isn't to be trusted and there are antipathies there so he must know something is up). Far less does he consider the conclusion I jumped to, which was that Estraven was himself in danger and having to distance himself, but instead he thinks "I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was ... faithless." At no time has Estraven shown any hint of faithlessness in their dealings up until then (if he had Ai would surely have referred to it) so there's no context for this belief save that "Estraven's performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him?" Yep, to me that's irrational -- bearing in mind he's meant to be an ambassador and presumably cultured to some extent, not some yokel from the back woods.


As to the patriarchal point, I can well believe how bad things were in 1969, and how far we have come since then. But for an intelligent, thoughtful, Western-style man (ie not one with a culture or religion which expressly denigrates women) to believe all women are untrustworthy in everything they say and do, purely by virtue of being female, with the converse presumably being that all men are automatically to be trusted, is surely going too far.
 

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