Kaion's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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bookshelves: sf, queer

The Should I Read This Book Quiz: Ursula Le Guin is considered a Very Important science fiction writer for her anthropological chops, and The Left Hand of Darkness her classic in which a lone representative of the Ekumen is sent down to a heretofore un-contacted planet to convince its denizens to join this interplanetary human collective. Genly Ai’s mission is complicated by his inexperience with their society—the most significant difference with his own being that all Gethenians are neither male nor female, but have the capability to be either once a month in their kemmering period. But should you read it?

[Begin Here:] Do you care about avoiding spoilers? If ‘yes’, go to A. If ‘no’, go to B.

A. The phrase ‘Light is the left hand of darkness’ is deployed sans irony. If you just cringed, go to 3. If you were just pondering the duality of nature, go to 1. If you laughed and mentally composed the next line, go to C.

B. A character describes an intense bonding moment with an alien thus: how the two of them finally understood each other as different beings, but essentially human… and how they wouldn’t have sex despite the tension because they respected each other too much. If you just thought that was intelligent, go to 1. If you just called the writer a ‘TEASE!’, go to 3. If you’re still hung up on the hermaphrodite part, go to C.

C. Two characters talk philosophically about the themes of the book. If this happens in all your favorite novels, go to 1. If you think this is a overused and lazy device that usually leads to the plot paradoxically from confronting said themes, go to 3. If you’ve never realized this happened before, go to 2.

1. Congratulations! You are an idealist. You love ‘world-building’, ‘details’, books about ‘ideas’, and authors who really ‘think’. I really don’t know why you haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, unless you are a sexist pig or one of those people who think all science fiction is people in rubber suits and Star Wars and therefore not smart enough for you.

2. Congratulations! You are a waffler. You’ll read anything if anyone else is reading, which is what led you to such gems in past years as The Kite Runner. The problem is a well-known female science fiction writer holds as much widespread pop culture currency as a well-known Weather Channel anchor. So only undertake if you hang out in crowds where ‘LARP’ is a known acronym. Otherwise, you’re better off with tracking down the Swedish The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo movie.

3. Congratulations! You are a realist. You laugh at all the enlightened super humans of the future, you think writers who want to espouse their philosophies should just do so without hiding behind aliens, and you skip sentences that have more than one made-up capitalized word. Chalk this up to a ‘skip it’, and continue secretly wishing to live in Brave New World.

I fall almost completely firmly in category 3 on this test, with a side order of 2. Largely, I respect and appreciate what Ursula Le Guin brings to the table with her ideas of how gender shapes the very fabric of our society, be it through politics, morality, or philosophy. Ultimately however, I felt like these ideas didn’t lead anywhere. Like the ‘tease’ I brought up earlier, it was as if the novel were a large-scale violation of Chekhov’s-Gun principle.

A lot of this is a function of the plot side of the equation- is this a story of first contact? Political intrigue? Survival thriller? Speculative anthropology/sociology? The narrative can’t really seem to decide. Subsequently there were long unfocused patches full of Proper Nouns, and ultimately the climax fails to truly address any of these storylines with aplomb.

On a more personal note, this is my second Ursula Le Guin novel, and I can tell she’s not really the kind of writer that appeals to me. There’s a rarified style to her writing that prevents me from connecting to the characters. It’s something I brought up earlier in point C: I don’t need characters that talk about the ‘meaning’—I want characters that are recognizably human enough that when they illustrate the message, it needs no caption to resonate. Rating: 2.5 stars
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Reading Progress

August 12, 2010 – Started Reading
August 12, 2010 – Shelved
August 12, 2010 –
page 75
24.67% "Le Guin finally gets to the point we've all actually been hanging in for- info about the hermaphroditic sex! Also of amusing historical note, my edition is old enough to have a honking color cigarette ad right in the middle (1972)."
August 12, 2010 – Shelved as: sf
August 12, 2010 – Finished Reading
July 19, 2011 – Shelved as: queer

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Lars (new)

Lars Guthrie Very creative as always, Kaion. I haven't read anything of LeGuin except childrens's stuff--'Wizard of Earthsea' and 'Catwings'--but I'll have to, somewhat guiltily, say I love those.

message 2: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie I loved your little quiz. After taking I realized that, no, I would not enjoy reading this book and so thanks for helping me avoid a time-waste!

Ankush Ha, this this the first time I've actually enjoyed a review that is more than a straightforward review. And in future I know I'm going to subconsciously categorise people as "Type 2 readers".

message 4: by Bobby (last edited May 24, 2013 02:46PM) (new)

Bobby Bermea Hahahahaha! I felt called out! I'm like "Oh shit! I'm a one!"

Except that I love science fiction, including Star Wars.

message 5: by Bobby (new)

Bobby Bermea You should definitely use this system to gauge other books. Hilarious.

Alex Haaaaaa, this is great. I went straight to 3. Why am I reading this book?

Kaion I feel bad because Le Guin is definitely a very important writer and I respect her work, but damn if that doesn't actually make it enjoyable. I mean, how can you have hermaphoditic aliens and no sex? I will probably give in and give her another chance eventually though. Maybe The Word for World is Forest or something.

Alex Right? Halfway through this I was like "Oh, I know where this is going." And then they're doing their Shackleton thing and I was all "Here we go, one tent two people, it's Brokeback Glacier time," and then they're all "Wah, we're friends." Booooooo.

Bodhi What was the first Le Guin? Put it in your review.

Kaion It was A Wizard of Earthsea. I didn't like it much: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

Has it really been so long? Man I really need to need to read more Le Guin. She wrote too many classics; I have no idea which to go to next. Anyone got suggestions?

Bodhi Like you, I went AWoE, then LHoD. Overall I liked Wizard more, so I went to the used bookstore for more Le Guin. I had inherited The Dispossessed from a family member, but I hadn't heard a lot about that one. I picked up the 2nd book in the Earthsea trilogy(originally), The Tombs of Atuan, but I haven't read it. The LHoD was one I didn't intend to pick up, but I had to have it my collection when I saw it on the shelves. Spending some time away from Earthsea, I'm a little hesitant to jump back in. I liked the ideas more, but the writing less. My next one will be The Dispossessed. You could choose that or The Lathe of Heaven or The Word for World is Forest.

Bodhi You live by the Monterey Bay? Me too.

message 13: by Kaion (last edited Nov 12, 2015 01:12PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kaion Thanks for the suggestions Bodhi. I do want to read more Le Guin at some point. Probably The Dispossessed.

I did read somewhere where Le Guin talked about how if she wrote Left Hand of Darkness again, she'd use a gender-neutral pronoun. (She also said how in her experience most women were nonchalant about the alternate-gender stuff, and wanted more sex in the novel. Ha, we're pervs.)

I appreciate a writer that can see her work that clearly.

*I don't live that close :(; I was on a Steinbeck tour. We went to his apartment and everything!

Suzan Lemont I loved the Word for World is Forest, the first book of her's I read. I liked this one, but not as much. It took me forever to get through the first half, and I'm a fast reader. Second half was better. I think I'll still try The Dispossessed, but I definitely do recommend The Word for World is Forest. What I like about her books (so far) is how applicapble the themes are to what's going on right this moment on Earth. I have to appreciate that kind of foreshadowing or prediction (it cannot be coincidence).

message 15: by Hell (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hell Love this.

Claire I found the characters to be quite human, especially Genly Ai. His transformation away from being a prejudiced outsider is subtle and beautiful.

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