J.'s Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Jan 04, 08

bookshelves: in-new-york
Read in January, 2008

This book is a science fiction classic. To fans of feminist and political science fiction, it is more than a classic - it is a touchstone, a founding document, a rallying post.

It follows Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen (a perhaps-utopian union of worlds) to the planet Gethen, where the entire habitable zone of the planet has a climate at the extreme cold end of human tolerance - and where Gethenian natives lack biological sex and gender, but can unpredictably develop either male or female apparatus when "in kemmer," which is a monthly cyclic state of being ready and driven to mate (yes, there has to be a better way to say this, and Le Guin manages it). Le Guin, as always, writes with specificity, honesty, and care. She devotes equal attention the the effects of both the cold and the odd biology on Gethenian culture, and never shoehorns in an authorial manifesto. Consequently, this book is no sort of call to revolution, despite being one of the first science fiction novels to deal with gender so intelligently and sensitively, not as a "war of the sexes" but as something far more nuanced. It is only feminist in that the emergent examination of the concept of gender is a thorough and intelligent one, and most of those tend to, after analysis, support a feminist viewpoint. Le Guin once said something along the lines of: "I hoped, after I had taken away male and female, that what remained might be, simply, human." Mostly, though, it is an early and exceptionally incisive example of anthropological science fiction which opened the field to further investigations of this sort.

There's a plot in there, too, eventually, and two characters whose relationship is convincingly troubled enough to be involving. The book gets much more compelling, I think, in the second half, as events propel those two characters onward and away from their fellows. In their isolation much of what was hinted at before is laid bare, and I experienced at least one moment of real awe and beauty. Which, you know, goes a long way toward making a book personally relevant, too.
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Amanda "it is a touchstone, a founding document, a rallying post."

Nice.



John E. Branch Jr. Bravo! This says much that I'd like to have said.


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