Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The sci-fi classic about a race of people who can change genders.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ace, 1969, 304 pages

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 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.

I really liked Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which takes place in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness though the stories are mostly unrelated. However, while this book has the same thoughtful, speculative tone in which the science fiction setting is just a venue to explore interesting psychosocial ideas, I was just not as interested in the ideas here. I know it's heresy to call a venerated SF classic by a master of the field "dull," but I just didn't find this book that interesting. Possibly it is because the ideas, which were so radical in 1969 when it won a Hugo and Nebula, are now fairly standard SF tropes and have also entered mainstream discourse.

The big "hook" for The Left Hand of Darkness, the thing that made it so ground-breaking and mind-bending when it was first published, is the idea of a race of (human) people living on a cold planet (Gethen, though outsiders just call it "Winter") who are not confined to a gender binary, but spend most of their lives in a sexless androgynous state. Periodically they briefly transform into male or female (they never know which one they will become), in a process that is a lot like going into heat. The inhabitants of Winter are thus neither gender and both. A person can be father of someone they gave birth to, or mother of someone they fathered.

The main character, who is basically just a narrative mouthpiece and thus not very interesting in himself, is a male human from an interstellar civilization who has come to Winter as an emissary, hoping to persuade the Winterites to join his vague, non-governmental civilization that has no laws and no enforcement but somehow gets everything done collectively while giving all the member planets complete autonomy. Given such a vague description, I was not surprised that the Winterites weren't falling over themselves to join, even if it did mean joining an advanced starfaring community. What's in it for them? Theoretically, knowledge and trade. But understandably, they are a little paranoid about these alien "sexual deviants." (Always gendered! Therefore always thinking about sex!)

Around this premise, Le Guin weaves a story that is part palace intrigue, part survivalist adventure/buddy story with homo/hetero-erotic tension. An exile from one of Winter's kingdoms who had earlier had an uneasy relationship with the protagonist winds up helping him escape another government that has suddenly turned against the idea of accepting the visitor from the stars, and puts him in a gulag instead. Together they escape, trek across the ice, and deal with their very different ways of thinking about someone who may or may not be the opposite sex at any given time, while also occasionally ruminating about the nature of government, power, and economics.

Ursula Le Guin is a genius. Her writing is art, and her ideas are not to be matched in most literature, not just the science fiction genre. But as much as I appreciated this book for what it was - a SF landmark that deserved its praise in its time - it just did not do for me what The Dispossessed did.

Also by Ursula K. Le Guin: My review of The Dispossessed.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction, ursula k le guin

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