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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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The Left Hand of Darkness is a first contact story. Genry (or Genly) Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen to the world of Gethen. The Ekumen represent a loose federation of humanity, and seem to act as facilitators of exchange between planets. Gethen is a world populated by humans, with a twist: the people are androgynous except for brief periods when individuals manifest both male and female sexual traits (though not simultaneously). There is no sex or gender on Gethen.

The first part of the book involves the slow discovery, by the reader and Envoy Ai, of what this means for Gethen society. One of the back-cover blurbs compares the book to The Lord of the Rings , which is accurate in that both Le Guin and Tolkien use allusions to myths and history to establish a sense of place in their respective realms. Apparently there are other Le Guin novels set in this universe that may elaborate on these hints, but a knowledge of them is not necessary. This probably the strongest element of the novel. Le Guin has rendered intricate, believable alien societies that are still recognizable as human.

One tool she uses, however, was a bit startling. Both Ai and Le Guin rely heavily on Freudian anaylsis to explain Gethen. Because the Gethenians, as the analysis goes, are normally not subject to sexual drives, they have nothing to sublimate. As a result, both individuals and society as a whole are more passive than normal bisexual humans. Leaving aside the question of whether this is an accurate reading of Freud (as I recall, for example, sexual desire is usually sublimated because it is the most powerful, but in its absence other drives might take its place), the virutally unquestioned validity of Freud struck me as odd. Perhaps it is an artifact of when the novel was written.

The Gethen's passivity relates to my major criticism of the book, which is that it's all a bit innocent. Like Star Trek's Federation, the Ekumen seem to have evolved out of sin. They're a perfectly anti-imperialist empire without any will to power at all. Their envoy, Genry Ai, is similarly innocent. I found this especially vexing considering the Freudianism described in the previous paragraph, since despite being stranded among androgynous aliens for years, his own desires never seem to give him any trouble. He's not perfect, but his mistakes are all errors rather than moral failings.

The inhabitants of Gethen are less innocent. To avoid giving anything away, I'll just say that they do some pretty awful things to each other and to Ai. But for the most part there is little maliciousness in their actions. Their sins are sins of omission, which fits with their general passivity, but even these faults are highly circumscribed.

This shouldn't be interpreted to mean I didn't enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, because I did. It's an enjoyable read, with plenty of stimulating ideas.
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Reading Progress

January 26, 2008 – Shelved
January 26, 2008 – Shelved as: fiction
Started Reading
May 1, 2008 – Finished Reading

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