Jon's Reviews > The Left Hand Of Darkness

The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Sep 01, 08

bookshelves: science-fiction, fiction, read-in-my-40s, award-winners, hugo-winner, nebula-winner
Read in September, 2008

I believe if I had read this back in the 70s or even early 80s, it probably would have wowed me. But now, in the 21st century, it was an interesting sociological study of androgyny, but gave me a headache towards the end.

Unfortunately, I never really became attached to the characters - Genly Ai, the Envoy from the Ekumen (and a Terran, born on Earth) nor with Estraven.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Sandi This is definitely idea-driven fiction rather than character-driven fiction. It's something that's not very common anymore.


Jeffrey The freshness of the concepts and the fact that its still one of only a few major works on this subject still make it one of the best sf books around. Sure the characters are not the best, but its the ideas that she brings to the table. I personally dont think its a tale of androgyny as you describe it. Rather its about what would happen if gender was not set. How much of our character is defined by our gender. How would people react. I may agree with you in part about the novel -- that is that if you read it 20 years ago you might have liked it more b/c its groundbreaking is not only in the discussion of the role of gender. Its also that its not about space ships or space exploration but is an almost intimate discussion of an alien encounter between a man from the technological sphere and an it from a medieval world. So while I understand your review I must say that calling it an "interesting sociological study of androgyny" misses the mark.


message 3: by Jon (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jon Perhaps it was my headache. Perhaps I was just disappointed, in myself, or in our society.

I said androgyny because if you remove gender, what do you have?

So much of our perception and reality is gender related. And it has been the bane of my life. Do you know what it's like to grow up with the name Jon (pronounced just like John) and yet be female? Even our names are gender biased!

My utopia, my dream, would be a society the can completely disregard gender. However, I would not want a return to primitive sexual instinct (i.e., having to be in heat once a month) just to procreate.

Le Guin bravely thrust a man into this world and we saw much of that world through a man's lens. We could understand his perception, because he is from our world.

If it isn't androgyny, is it asexuality? Like the earthworm (if I remember correctly) that has both sexes? I was never exceptional at biology and it's been nearly three decades now that I've had to study it.


Matt So, you are the 'boy named Sue's' counterpart? :)

My mom is named 'Billie', mostly I think because my grandfather wanted a boy so badly.

I think it is unlikely or maybe even unhealthy to completely disregard gender. Like it or not, gender is a real thing, written into us as a species down to the level of our genes. But I agree that it would be nice if we could treat it just as the real thing that it is rather than the thing we want it to be. I dislike the artificial constructs and habitats we make for our gender. On the other hand, I also believe that while gender may be real, people are so individual that knowing someone's gender doesn't and can't tell us as much as knowing the person themselves. Worst of the bunch though is the notion pronounced by so many on either side of the 'gender wars' that (alternatively) women are just defective men, or men are just defective women.

I felt that LeGuin's solution was a bit of a cop-out. Alot of sci-fi authors do the same sort of dodge, with varying degrees of success. I preferred Brin's study of sexuality in 'Glory Season' to 'Left Hand of Darkness'. I also find Bujold's 'dodge', that gender could only really be discounted when the uterus could be externalized, a little more reasonable that LeGuin's. Maybe the worst case though of dodging the questions is Iain M. Banks, whose world of complete gender equality is achieved by genetic engineering that ensures actual gender equality. Banks goes so far as to render gender meaningless by having characters physically capable of transforming from one gender to another. But exactly how that is relevant to the gender lives of our current species, I'm not at all sure.


Brad I'd like to suggest reading it one more time , Jon, after you've had a layoff. I felt much the way you did on my first time through, liking it for much the same reasons as you but not loving it. Since then I've read it twice more, both times for a Novel and Short Story course I was teaching at a local college (I wanted something a second novel from a woman, and I wanted a sci-fi, so it was either this or the Dispossessed since I am such a big LeGuin fan, but I figured this would generate easier discussions). Anyway, all that to say that I wound up really liking it the second time and loving it by the time I finished the third reading. I think it really improves with multiple readings.


message 6: by Jon (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jon I'll have to re-mooch it or get it from the library. I will definitely give it another go. I've always liked LeGuin's work.


Werner I've read it only once (for a graduate-level course in science fiction literature in the mid-90s) and liked it. Personally, I don't think (unlike some critics) that Le Guin is saying that humans really are. or should be, basically androgenous, rather, I think she uses the Gethen's androgeny to create a situation in which people have to be evaluated and related to on the basis of their character, not their anatomy. And, of course, the implication is, why can't we do that anyway, since it makes sense?

In the real world, though, our gender is a subtle part of who we are. It shouldn't be used to define, limit and pigeonhole us, but it does shade other people's reactions to us as a person --and if we're not reacted to as a "he' or a "she," but just as an "it," we're no longer being related to as a person. I think that's part of why Therem Harth Estraven and the other Gethenians are hard for us to relate to as characters; they lack the gender identification we feel we need to comfortably accept them as one of us.


Jeffrey I also have to disagree with you Jon. LeGuin's book is really exceptional science fiction. She understands that gender is one of the major driving forces in society and writes a novel that explores the nature of gender by removing it from characters. This is not a study of androgeny at all. Its a serious exploration of what society would be like if gender was not specific.

The book is very original. Yes I agree the characters are not the best, but ideas are important. This is a seminal work of science fiction and I read it on my own but also in a science fiction class in college and I would bet that its read in college sf classes a lot. ANother work that explores this concept -- with more characterization is Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle.


Brad Jeffrey wrote: "This is a seminal work of science fiction and I read it on my own but also in a science fiction class in college and I would bet that its read in college sf classes a lot...."

It's also used beyond Sci-Fi classes. I've seen it used in classes that deal with gender issues, and even in straightforward novel classes.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Jon, I didn't think all that much of it when I first read it years ago either. I loved the atmosphere but I thought the ideas were sadly lacking.

I'm actually looking forward to re-reading it because I had such trouble putting my finger on it the first time. I might not feel the same way at all; I'm interested to find out. I just thought le Guin didn't push the idea far enough, like there was some connection she stopped short of making that was on the tip of my tongue...


Libby Jon and Shannon - I'm in full agreement with your reviews. I was very excited to read this book due to its critical acclaim, but once I did I was ultimately disappointed. Frankly, I had to make myself finish it. I just didn't have any interest in it – plot or ideas. Maybe it's generational - it may have been very original at the time of publication but it just didn't stand out for me in 2008. I understand the driving ideas behind the book and I appreciate the exploration of the influence of gender, or lack thereof, on a society (I minored in Anthropology in college so it wasn’t that I had no interest in the topic) but the book was just stale for me.

It'll be interesting to see what I think the second time around as this is a selection for book club. I'm sure it will inspire very fun and interesting discussion but I don't know if that will make me appreciate the book more.



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