Michael's Reviews > The Left Hand Of Darkness

The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Sep 25, 09

bookshelves: goodest-reads-2009, 1960s, fiction-that-speculates
Read in September, 2009

This is the first "soft SF" book I've read, and perhaps the softer side is what I prefer. One of my chief complaints about "hard" science fiction is the lack of character development, and the intense focus on . . . well. . . the science of it. Frankly, I've always been more interested in characters. This book is about characters.

The story follows an ambassador to the planet Winter. The ambassador is human, but the people of Winter are androgynous- they are neither male nor female until Kemmer, a few days each month, wherein they become briefly either male or female. Only during this time do the people of Winter have sex, and the rest of the time, they're devoid of the urge.

Our main character, Ai, is a man's man. He often refers to things as "womanly" and struggles with coming to terms with the sexlessness of those around him. His mind is continually trying to classify those he meets as one sex or the other, and so do I as a reader. The way people act towards other people is, in so many ways, determined by one's own sex and the sex of the other. As Ai says at one point, the biggest determiner of our course in life is whether we're born a man or a woman. (This isn't a real quote, but the idea is essentially the same as Ai's statement. As usual, I'm too lazy to give you a direct quotation.)

I don't want to ruin the storyline, but I will say that the politics on Winter are very reminiscent of Earthly politics, even though the concept of war doesn't exist. Apparently the people of Winter don't have the necessary testosterone to get into wars. Assassinations, political betrayals, and other unsavory things happen in abundance, though.

(SPOILER ALERT: Mild spoils ahead)
This book is definitely worth multiple reads. It wrestles with Big Ideas like duality (between man & woman, man & nature) and sexuality. Ai has some moments of sexual tension with "women," but the fact that they could just as easily have become men hovers over these experiences, and the book ends without him getting any poontang. Perhaps a modern book would've wrestled even more with the sexual ambiguity Ai faced in his time on the planet. But, this was written in the sixties, during the time when Le Guin was still writing as "an honorary man, and not as a woman" (almost a direct quote), so she probably didn't want to delve too deep into an aspect of the book that might become too weird for many of her readers.

Anyway, I loved this book, and I expect I'll be reading a lot more of Le Guin's work in the future. A lot of science fiction revels in the foreign-ness of other planets and other life forms; in The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin revels in the same-ness of this other planets experience of living. I recommend this book very highly.
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09/18/2009 page 45
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