Matt's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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's review
Jun 03, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: science-fiction, fantasy, favorites, feminism

(Cross-posted to my science fiction blog, Android Dreamer)

The Left Hand of Darkness is often called a 'feminist' science-fiction novel, but surprisingly is not the story of an intergalactic butch lesbian who travels the galaxy systematically castrating alien men on each planet she comes across. As a matter of fact, there really aren't any women in The Left Hand of Darkness, and only one man to speak of.

Genly Ai is the envoy for Ekumen, an interplanetary alliance that has tasked Ai with trying to bring a planet called Gethen into the Ekumen. Called "Winter" by the humans, Gethen is a cold planet, in the middle of an ice age. Its inhabitants seem perfectly comfortable in temperatures well-below freezing, and the question is rarely of "if" it will snow, but more "how much." This is far from the most notable thing about the people of Gethen, as they are all genderless.

Each twenty-six days, when the cycles of the Gethen people reach the stage of needing to procreate, the people of Gethen choose a gender to fit the situation as needed. It is commonplace for Gethen people to have fathered several children, and given birth to several others. Because of their genderless society, there are no perceptions of gender roles, or of masculinity and femininity.

The Left Hand of Darkness has so much to say in its 300 or so pages, and manages to do all of it very well. There are occasional stretches where it seems like nothing is happening, but luckily, Le Guin's prose is nearly flawless, each section reading like poetry. There may be science fiction writers who come close to her ability as a writer, but I don't think that she has an equal. Le Guin could easily rattle off a few hundred pages with no plot or reason whatsoever, and it would still manage to be readable for the quality of prose alone.

Beyond the basic plot of the storyline, the novel is really about Genly Ai and his learning how to deal with a society without gender roles. Early on in the story, he feels the need to assign a characteristic of masculinity and femininity to every emotion and every person he meets, and it takes one person from Gethen for him to begin to open his mind to another race and another culture.

Being the first Hugo Award winning novel written by a woman, The Left Hand of Darkness is immediately notable. Regardless of Le Guin's gender, it is a fantastic novel and well-worth its high rankings among the great works of science-fiction. It isn't a read full of action and explosions, but showcases the best in science-fiction when it comes to message and being a meaningful work.

My initial reaction to The Left Hand of Darkness was that it was quite good, but it is only later that I realized that it is actually amazing. Generally, I can read a great book and in a few weeks time it is gone from my mind. I still remember other books, but none have really stuck with me quite like this. It has been about a year since I finished it and wrote the majority of this review, but I still find myself thinking about this book at least once or twice a week. If someone were to ask me to read a single science fiction novel that encapsulated everything that is good and wonderful about sci-fi, I would give The Left Hand of Darkness serious consideration.
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Reading Progress

June 3, 2010 – Shelved
June 4, 2010 – Started Reading
June 5, 2010 –
page 89
June 5, 2010 –
page 164
June 6, 2010 –
page 240
78.95% "Even in parts where the book is a little slow, Le Guin's outstanding prose makes every word worth reading. Definitely worth its classic status."
June 7, 2010 –
page 304
June 7, 2010 – Shelved as: science-fiction
June 7, 2010 – Shelved as: fantasy
June 7, 2010 – Finished Reading
January 28, 2011 – Shelved as: favorites
December 4, 2015 – Shelved as: feminism

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