Jan 15, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a human envoy to a far-off planet that he names Winter. Genly is in Winter as a representative of the Ekumen, an association whose aim is to promote communication and trade between worlds – not just commercial trade, but trade of ideas, philosophies, experiences, beliefs, cultures. Before Genly’s arrival, the inhabitants of Winter, the Gethenians, were not aware of the existence of other inhabited worlds. Genly’s mission is to convince them that he is trustworthy, and that it would be in their best interest to join the Ekumen. This is not an easy task, because most won’t even believe that he is an alien.

Winter is an austere planet, with constant sub-artic weather. However, that is not the strangest thing about it. What Genly finds strangest is the fact that the Gethenians are androgynes. They have a sexual cycle that lasts approximately 26 days. For 24 of those, they are genderless and asexual. In the remaining two days, they enter kemmer, and can become either male or female. There is no way no predict which they will become, nor do they find it relevant. No Gethenian has a predominant tendency to become male or female. And the same person can mother and father a child, and often does both during their lifetime.

Ursula Le Guin uses this premise to explore issues like gender and its role in society, power, ambition, fear and politics, and more individual issues like sexuality, intimacy and trust.

I will start by saying that I feel very ambivalently towards this book. This is not the first time I tried to read it – the first time was a couple of years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it, so I put it down. I thought it was perhaps a matter of timing. However, this time I struggled once more. But I persisted.

I do not mean by this that I think that The Left Hand of Darkness is a bad book. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, and I can see why. I can see its merits, and I understand why it’s a landmark in science fiction. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it. It’s hard to have such mixed feelings, especially about a book by an author I practically worship. I guess the best I can do is try to explain how this book made me feel, and why.

Even though I am a big fan of fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, I have a little trouble entering sci-fi worlds. It’s not that I can’t do it – I love books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and TV series like Stargate and Babylon 5. It’s just that it takes an extra effort – I am not transported into a sci-fi world as easily as into a fantasy one. I can’t explain why. It’s certainly not a matter of scepticism, of being unable to suspend my disbelief. Aliens, after all, are much more likely than ogres or elves. I grew up obsessed with the X-Files and scanning the skies for flying saucers regularly. And plus, my enjoyment of a story has never depended on how close its relationship with reality is. So this resistance is odd, I know, but it’s how it’s always been for me.

So that, and the fact that I am unfamiliar with Ursula Le Guin’s Hamish universe, could have been part of the problem. But there’s more. The story begins as a report from Genly to the Ekumen. Part of it is written like that, with other chapters from the point of view of Estraven, the Gethenian Genly gets closer to. There are also short interludes with myths and traditional tales from Winter (and in the first half of the book, these were my favourite bits).

My problem, at first, was that the book was written as a report and it actually read like one, rather than like a story. There was this sense of alienness, of distance from the story that I couldn’t shake off. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. What’s interesting here is that this reflects exactly how Genly feels about Winter in the first half of the book. He cannot get over the Gethenians’s lack of gender definition. I think the strangeness I felt was possibly part of what the book was trying to achieve. It’s funny, because I don’t really think of myself as someone to whom gender matters all that much. And yet… the strangeness was there. This book made me think. Even if I don’t believe in the existence of male or female personality types or characteristics, even if I don’t think I look at or classify people in terms of their gender, to what extent can I actually ignore those categories? They are, after all, deeply ingrained in my mind.

As the story advances, the tone becomes less strange, more intimate, quieter and more reflective. There was a part describing a long journey across the ice that I really enjoyed. And again, that is exactly when Genly begins to surpass the strangeness he feels, which once more makes me think that this is part of what Ursula Le Guin was trying to achieve. When Genly began to feel at home among the Gethenians, I too felt at home in the story.

And yet… this book made me uncomfortable, and I can’t quite pinpoint why. It challenged me. There were passages I loved, passages that show Ursula Le Guin at her very best:
When you meet a Gethenians you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectation of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.
How does one hate one country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain ploughland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?
I can see this book growing on me as it sinks further in. I can see myself looking back at it with more and more fondness as time goes by. I really liked the ending, for example – it was hopeful and sad, full of gain and loss. I think this is a book that will stay with me. But if you were to ask me right now how much I enjoyed it, I still wouldn’t know what to say. However, if the question were if I’m glad to have read it, the answer would be a definite yes.

Other Opinions:
Trish's Reading Nook
Stella Matutina


  1. I know what you mean about finding it easier to slip into a fantasy world then a science fiction one, I find the same thing. It's interesting when you are used to fantasy books by an author and then find a science fiction set. I am glad you managed to finish it this time and you are glad you read it, even if you aren't sure you can say if you enjoyed it or not!

  2. A tremendous feat indeed! Yes, I know what you mean about the difficulty of getting into a novel, specifically Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver.

    On Le Guin's novel, I definitely agree with you about the change in tone from formality to intimate. I find that whenever Le Guin begins her narrative, she usually tries to build up the setting before actually getting down to the character's perspective and feelings. But, in the process of introducing us to her world and the characters within, we also become one with her characters (as you mentioned). We are able to see our society in a different light after reading this book. That is one the most exciting aspects of Le Guin's work and part of the reason why I also admire her.

  3. Back on a LeGuin kick, eh? I understand your problem getting into Sci-fi...I'm the same way. There are a few authors who right wonderful sci-fi who make it easy for me to get wrapped up into their worlds immediately (Orson Scott Card, what I've read of Arthur Clarke, HG Wells, the first Stainless Steel Rat book). But for the most part, fantasy worlds are much more my thing. I've tried this book before too and couldn't make it through. I had the same experience with The Lathe of Heaven :/ But I'm looking forward to Gifts! It sounds like much more my thing.

  4. I have yet to read any of her novels, but I have Gifts sitting on my shelf. It is a beautiful looking book that I am really looking forward to delving into.

  5. What an interesting review and what an interesting sounding book! What you said about fantasy versus science fiction is true for me, too. It's easier for me to slip into fantasy world because it feels closer to home (it sounds silly to put it that way) and more "familiar." But I love the way science fiction makes me THINK.

  6. I read this book years ago! I remember really liking it, but I can hardly remember it. I think I might have to reread...

  7. You're amazing! Truly. No matter what your feelings towards a book, you manage to write the most beautiful, most thoughtful reviews.

    And I can't believe how much you've been getting read! Aren't you still finishing up with finals?

  8. I'm with Debi here: Aren't you supposed to be studying?

    Did I ever tell you the one time -- the ONLY time I failed a paper (on Statistics -- *yawn*) was when I didn't study? I was busy reading The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Throne -- but that's not an excuse.

    Go study! :p

    But before you go study: I'm with you too on fantasy being more accessible than science fiction personally. But my problem is usually with the hard-science sci-fi stories.

    You're not the first person who have ambivalent feelings about "Left Hand of Darkness" -- but that might really be the sign of an extraordinary story that does not just allow us the easy, convenient emotions.

  9. Rhinoa: It is a bit strange to react so differently to books by the same author. Anyway, I really do think this one will grow on me as time passes.

    Orchidus: You are absolutely right. And it takes a lot for an author to achieve that the way she does.

    Chris: I really do think that Gifts is your thing! I'll be very surprised if you don't get into that one right away!

    Carl: I can't wait to see what you think of it. It's a beautiful book in every sense of the word!

    Robin: I'm glad I'm not the only one. And yeah, I agree. Not that fantasy books can't be thought provoking too, but science fiction challenges me in different ways.

    Kailana: Even though I struggled with it, I can see myself reading this in the future too.

    Debi: You really are too nice to me :P My last final was today. Before that I was studying, but what I do when I have little time to read is read more intensely. I'd read on the bus on my way to university, I'd read for the whole of my one hour lunch break, taking care not to drop sandwich crumbs over the book, I'd on my way back home, I'd read a little before bed... my brain needs stories, otherwise it stars to melt :P It also helps that the books I read the past two weeks were all short.

    Dark Orpheus: My last final was today, and it went well. Worry not, I did study hard :P I just read intensely for the little time when I'm not studying, or else I start to malfunction. And I think you're right. The fact that this book provokes such reactions is most likely a sign of its power.

  10. I struggled with this one too but like you found it got easier and more enjoyable as it went along. I plan to reread it again one day and see if it is easier to get into. Can I recommend Le Guin's anthology, The Birthday of the World? (If you haven't already read it.) Most of the stories are set in her Ekumen universe and are about sexuality. One of the best anthologies I've *ever* read.

  11. Cath, thank you for the recommendation! I'm going to look for it.

  12. Hi Nymeth! This is a great review! I understand your sentiments. There are times it's hard for me to get into science fiction as well (except when I'm watching it, visual stuff does the trick somehow in seeing into the technologically advanced future). I think a lot of it depends on the author though, and how the future is presented in the work.

    I can't wait to read my copy of this one. I will be reading this book soon (or at least within the first quarter as I listed it on my Speculative Fiction Challenge).

  13. It is much easier when watching it, isn't it? I don't really know why; when it comes to things like fantasy I'd much rather let my imagination do the trick on its own. Anyway, I look forward to comparing notes on this one with you!

  14. I started off reading your review thinking, "wow, this sounds really interesting." Then, I thought, "oh great." Then I stopped reading because I was getting discouraged. I've told you a million times (feels like anyway) that I'll be reading this book soon. Doesn't help that it was a tough one for you. Grrr. :) I'll probably come back and read the rest when I'm done with the book (which I'll probably put off now even longer!!). Ha ha.

  15. I've tried numerous times to get into this book but haven't been able to finish it ever - congratulations on finishing it yourself, I know it's a hard book to get into.

    I've never read any other stuff by Ursula Le Guin because of my experiences with this book, but you love her. Is her other stuff much different? What ones would you recommend?

  16. Court: I do find her fantasy much, much more accessible. The Earthsea books are among my all-time favourites. They are beautifully written, profound, wise, poignant and very, very gripping. Her most recent YA series, The Annals of the Western Shore (3 books: Gifts, Voices and Powers) is becoming a new favourite of mine too. I've read the first two and they were unputdownable.


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