Book Review: “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K Le Guin

April 14, 2010

If you can shake off the burdens of its serious themes—gender, sexism, totalitarian political regimes—The Left Hand of Darkness is actually an interesting story, one that, as Le Guin’s own Introduction explains, pushes the envelope of the science fiction genre. The critics seemed pleased with Le Guin: the 1969 novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. But does the story age well? Its treatment of feminism, as well as the thinly-veiled parallels between the planet Winter’s fantasy politics and our own earthbound nations keep peg it squarely in its origins: the late 1960s.

To get it out of the way: I think Ursula K. Le Guin is a outrageously talented writer. The book’s introduction, which has a retrospective feel to it, is such a stellar breakdown of the meanings of science fiction and the onus of writers that I read parts of it out loud to my husband. The nuances of the planet Winter (Gethen in the indigenous language), its glacial, cold-sleet climate and its androgynous inhabitants, make me wish that Le Guin could do away with the interstellar stuff entirely and just tell the story, in her superior style, without distraction.

On Winter, we follow Genly Ai, who is generally human and probably black, as he serves as an early emissary from the pan-galactic Ekumen, a loose and somewhat Utopian alliance of various planets and peoples. Ai comes to offer the beings of Winter an alliance with the Ekumen, which is portrayed as a harmonious, win-win situation (but remember: Ai is our narrator). Ai’s job is to convince the slow-evolving Gethenians that the Ekumen is the way of the future.

The Gethenians, meanwhile, are plodding on through their own existence. On one part of the planet is a rustic kingdom, with a doddering king; rough-hewn stone buildings and vast fireplaces. The other big political power is a quasi-Eastern-bloc nation with various ministries, “voluntary farm” communities, and secret police forces. Worldwide the Gethenians are neither male nor female. They exhibit male or female characteristics only once a month, during a few-day long period of fertility called “kemmer.” Thus each Gethenian is as likely to be a father as a mother, and the entire notion of gender is discarded, culturally.

This sounds interesting, but the English language’s lack of a neuter pronoun is detrimental—though perhaps this is Le Guin playing with us via her narrator. Ai, who comes from a human, sexually-differentiated background, refers to Gethenians as “he” consistently, and tends to point out the characteristics that deviate from masculinity rather than the other way around. This is tricksy: it’s difficult to tell if Le Guin is tweaking our own notions of character identity or if it is unintentional. Either way, I came out the other side of my adventure on Winter feeling like its inhabitants were all generally male.

The book starts out on a leisurely pace, with some doldrums surrounding political intrigue (slight yawn), but gallops off at about half or two-thirds through into full-fledged adventure and page-turning stuff. Her rendition of a very cold planet, its wicked geography, and its phlegmatic populace is the most engrossing facet of this worthwhile novel; give it an extra half or full star if you are particularly keen on reading feminist literature.

3.5 stars

One Comment

  1. Preston says:

    Great book!

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