Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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May 29, 2012

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Read from June 07 to 10, 2012

This is not a review, so much as a connected set of observations about this novel. All of these comments are merely thoughts that went through my mind as I became aware of what was missing, what seemed odd, in this otherwise rich and compelling tale, governed by the overarching question in my mind about how UKL would write this, were she writing it in 2012.

First, by way of caveat, I've read only one other UKL novel -- A Wizard of Earthsea -- and that was more than 25 years ago in what was known as a "kiddie lit" undergrad class (there was no "YA" back then, when books were chiseled with flint tools on rock from the precambrian shield).

That was still well after this book was written: 1969 - the year the US landed on the moon; the Vietnam War was in full swing; and the summer of love had turned into assassinations, race riots and Altamont. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and founded NOW in 1966; and the Stonewall riots occurred in 1969 (thank you, Wikipedia) - but the reality is that it was still pretty early days in terms of consciousness-raising all 'round, especially on the gay rights and women's movement fronts.

I have absolutely no doubt that this novel was barrier-busting in its presentation of a non-gendered world. But in another, it is absolutely mired in a time in which the public discourse and general zeitgeist was - even for progressives as I have no doubt UKL is - pretty damn archaic, by today's standards.

From a 2012 vantage point, this set up a very interesting reading experience.

Let me say right off the bat that I really enjoyed this novel. I found it engaging; I loved the gap in understanding between Estraven and Genly Ai, and how UKL wrote that to resolution, bringing the two perspectives together in the service of a lofty goal. I love the artfulness and thought-experimental concepts and the 'world-building.' I love the insertion of oral tales and mythologies, and the subtle satire and analogy of the politics, especially the allusions to the UN (in many ways - many - this novel reads more like a post-war/Cold War novel, despite the gender/sexuality/environmental themes it raises, which seem more contemporary).

All that aside, though, back to the reading experience circa 2012. There were times when I winced at Genly Ai's attempts to describe the differences in mind and manners between men and women ("I don't know. They don't often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn't that they're stupid."). Eeeek.

At first, I thought this was UKL's technique for showing Genly's arrogance and blind spots, despite being from a presumably more advanced culture. But that reading doesn't hold up given how things turn out (if it were so; he would have had a come-uppance).

And the treatment of the sexual conflict between Estraven and Genly is, well, positively quaint.

(view spoiler)

Oh, how differently she would write that scene today, I bet!

And one other thing: this is a planet that is significantly colder than Earth, where life exists in a narrow equatorial band hemmed in by two glaciers, and where the topic of what causes Ice Ages, including those on Earth, is raised directly at least twice but discussed without even the most oblique reference to global warming/climate change.

Again, it simply could not be written that way today by UKL or anyone else, I don't think; and cannot be read today without noticing the omission.

One final thought: I'm glad I read this in the middle of the summer. Brrrrrrrrrrrr.
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Reading Progress

06/09/2012 page 188
62.0% "this must've been absolutely revolutionary for its time. from my vantage point of pretty much zero knowledge of UKL (sorry Ceridwen) and scifi, I think she must be to literature what Gene Roddenberry was to TV. Is that sacriligeous and/or naive to say? I mean it as a huge compliment." 1 comment
06/29/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian I am honored to be the first person to "like" your non-review. Your not-a-review is better than most people's reviews :)


message 2: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Well, I left a big old thoughtful comment, and GR ate it. Augh.


message 3: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Roughly it went something like: I love this book, but Genly always sets my teeth on edge - he's so sexist and conformist. It also bugs me a little bit that altho Le Guin specifies he's "black" (what that means in her far future exactly, I don't know) it....doesn't seem to make that much difference to his character, altho that could be Just Me. Le Guin did approach Gethen quite differently in some short stories - one of them is 'Coming of Age in Karhide,' which I really liked.


message 4: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 11, 2012 04:26PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Thank you, Ian!

And thank you Moira for fighting back at the GR monster. Yeah - I'm glad it wasn't just me. I really didn't like him, even right to the end, and I thought it was UKL's *intention* that I not like him, but if that's so ... she didn't do anything to validate why, or seem to be using him to make a comment on the broader issue of Earth society/cultural evolution and cultural arrogance, really - I mean, I feel like that WAS the point, but I also feel I had to work really hard to make that point for her.

So in the end, I was just a bit confused about what she was trying to do with this character.

You're right - he was black! I think I didn't really process that so much, given the other elements of the story that captured more of my attention. Again - feels like a missed opportunity but like you, for what, I'm not sure.

I would like to read more UKL - I'll look into the short stories, thanks. Any other recommendations for where I should go next?


message 5: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "Yeah - I'm glad it wasn't just me. I really didn't like him, even right to the end, and I thought it was UKL's *intention* that I not like him, but if that's so ... she didn't do anything to validate why, or seem to be using him to make a comment on the broader issue of Earth society/cultural evolution and cultural arrogance, really - I mean, I feel like that WAS the point, but I also feel I had to work really hard to make that point for her.

Yeah, I have a number of friends who think he's meant to learn on his journey, or not be representative, or Le Guin isn't validating his viewpoint, or whatever, but that doesn't work so well for me, especially since he's the first-person narrator and our _only_ window onto this world (well, besides the reports and myths at intervals, but those are a lot shorter).

You're right - he was black! I think I didn't really process that so much, given the other elements of the story that captured more of my attention.

Yeah, and it's just sort of....breezed over? As you say, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity. But at the same time, I don't think intersectionality was as prevalent when she was writing the book.

I would like to read more UKL - I'll look into the short stories, thanks. Any other recommendations for where I should go next? "

Oh gosh that really depends....one of my favourite books of hers is Lathe of Heaven, which is sort of futuristic sf, with a twist. I love her short stories, especially the early-to-middle ones. There's the Earthsea trilogy, and The Dispossessed, altho both of those can be a little dry....I really liked her recent 'West Coast' trilogy. I'm not a big fan of her very early very short genre novels, they're real apprentice peoples. Always Coming Home is good, too, but long and sort of self-consciously fragmented.


Jennifer (aka EM) My dogwalker, noticing this book on my kitchen counter, just recommended The Dispossessed. I'm going to do that one next ....


message 7: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "My dogwalker, noticing this book on my kitchen counter, just recommended The Dispossessed. I'm going to do that one next ...."

That's a really good one, and probably her other really famous novel, altho I'm not sure I'd recommend it to someone just starting off (there's some pretty bad gender stuff, altho Shevek is a big improvement on Genly). But it's quite good. The structure especially, once you notice it, is lovely (I had to have it pointed out to me by Brian Aldiss).


Jennifer (aka EM) oh, great - I'll keep an eye out for structure! I'm looking forward to reading on my holidays end of the month. Will report back!


Cecily A great non-review. Like you, the only other UKL I've read was Wizard of Earthsea (though I'm not sure I want to admit to precambrian chisels), but this did seem horribly dated and really quite anti-feminist in some respects.


Bodhi Strange. My two UKL books: Wizard then Left Hand.


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