Matthew Quann's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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it was ok
bookshelves: penguin-galaxy, sci-fi, sff-award-winners

It has been a bit of a personal project of for the past year or so to sample from the classics of the sci-fi genre. It’s not that I think modern sci-fi is undesirable—indeed, I’m a huge fan—rather, there is a lot of reward in visiting trends in sci-fi from other times, seeing the foundations of modern sci-fi, and having a base understanding of the language of science fiction. Sci-fi is endlessly self-referential and to be well versed in the genre it is almost a requirement that certain books be read. This has led to a sampling of books that have challenged, awed, and befuddled me in equal measure.

One of the treats that has been afforded to me in my readings is a deeper appreciation for sci-fi as a vehicle for any type of story to be told. Thus far, the Penguin Galaxy series has been the ideal selection of classics from which to broaden my horizons. Dune is a spectacle of world-building, a metaphor for climate change, and a thrilling political drama that seems almost a precursor to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Neuromancer presented a drug-addled future in which the lead character is equally as concerned with his next score and lay as the underlying AI-based mystery. It follows then, that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is of similar experimental pedigree and was nothing at all what I expected.

Genly Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen—your standard giant space empire—to the planet of Gethen, or Winter. He is sent alone, as per the Ekumen custom, to bring the planet into the fold of the interplanetary collective. What makes Gethen such a unique place, aside from the inhospitable constant winter, is the Gethenian people. There are no men, no women, only androgynous beings that assume a gender when they enter “kemmer”, or a reproductive state, which happens on a regular cycle. Thus the world of Winter is unlike our own in climate and culture.

Though there are guaranteed to be thought pieces, theses, and reviews that have put it more eloquently than myself, The Left Hand of Darkness is a different breed of sci-fi. I like to think of it as a more anthropological sci-fi. Genly Ai’s journey to come to grips with a culture that holds no gender roles is more philosophical and emotional than I’d expect from most sci-fi. Where other books would spend time with physical conflict, The Left Hand of Darkness relishes in the expansion of Genly’s personal understanding of gender.

It certainly makes for as topical a read today as it did when first published back in 1969. Gender and sexuality seem to so often fall into circuitous discussions in public and on the internet, and it was a breath of fresh air to read what is essentially a long treatise on what it would truly mean to live without consideration of another human’s genitalia. It also makes for a reading experience that is fairly challenging. Estraven, the Gethenian character with whom the reader spends most of their time, is difficult to imagine. In fact, the struggle to remove my own ingrained perception of gender during my reading of The Left Hand of Darkness stretched my mind in interesting new directions. If the intention is to challenge our preconceived notions of gender, Le Guin succeeds.

Though this is all stimulating, the novel does lack a sense of forward momentum that made it a bit of a drag. In particular, there’s a good stretch in the back half of the novel where Genly and Estraven traverse the hostile world with hardly any provisions. This section seemed to drag on forever, and was infrequently warmed by the romance plot that runs alongside it. Though I kept expecting it, the intimacy here never becomes sexual, but is instead emotional, intellectual, and physical only in the sense of two people physically suffering together.

There is a bit of suffering involved in the reading of The Left Hand of Darkness. I took on the book at a time in which I was too busy to give it its proper due and conjuring a winter wasteland is painful when the summer’s sunlight lands across the book’s pages. It’s a book that’s more satisfying in the abstract than appealing during the actual reading. As an academic exploration of classic sci-fi, it fits the bill even if it doesn’t make for an enjoyable experience overall.
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Reading Progress

April 7, 2016 – Shelved
April 7, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
July 12, 2017 – Started Reading
July 22, 2017 –
page 130
45.14% "I'll admit that I'm not 100% sold on Le Guin's masterpiece yet, but it is an impressive feat of world-building if nothing else."
July 28, 2017 – Shelved as: penguin-galaxy
July 28, 2017 – Shelved as: sci-fi
July 28, 2017 – Shelved as: sff-award-winners
July 28, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Veronica (new) - added it

Veronica You didn't read it in the winter...like I told you to.


Matthew Quann The winter atmosphere definitely didn't help Veronica! I should have heeded your advice


message 3: by Veronica (new) - added it

Veronica Ha ha ha. Well, I'm about to start the new Robin Hobb. Any suggestions?


Matthew Quann Hobb's good anytime. Enjoy!


Cecily Superb review, Matthew. This book has such an important idea, and one whose time has perhaps come, but I found it dull, and worse, I didn't feel Le Guin made the point about gender very effectively, for instance, by having Ai mostly using male pronouns for Estraven and other Gethenians.

Now is the time for others to write novels with societies where everyone is genderless or non-binary. Or maybe they have, but are too niche and preachy to have reached a mainstream audience.


message 6: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I'm unfamiliar with the Penguin Galaxy series. Thanks for the heads up. I do plan to read this book...once again, thanks for the "warnings" or preparation. Nice review.


Matthew Quann Cecily wrote: "Superb review, Matthew. This book has such an important idea, and one whose time has perhaps come, but I found it dull, and worse, I didn't feel Le Guin made the point about gender very effectively..."

Thanks for the kind comments Cecily. Fortunately, I can point you towards a genderless/non-binary sci-fi series, though the pronoun 'she' is used for everyone. Ancilliary Justice has a lot of other great ideas about it, but it borrows from Le Guin most with the use of a genderless society. The book is not at all preachy, but it spends most of the first book concerned with its other sci-fi concept before turning to gender in the second. The trilogy is quite good even if it sent me for a loop on the first read-through.

Also, we are in agreement that Le Guin did write a fairly dull book. There were moments of striking imagery, but they fell in between long stretches of monotony. I've read that some of her other novels are more accessible, though I won't be running out to pick them up.


Matthew Quann Sue wrote: "I'm unfamiliar with the Penguin Galaxy series. Thanks for the heads up. I do plan to read this book...once again, thanks for the "warnings" or preparation. Nice review."

I've been a big fan of the Penguin Galaxy series thus far. In addition to being a good sampling of some foundational sci-fi, the physical book's design is really attractive. There's also a pretty stunning variety in storytelling and genre. It's been a good way for me to touch down with some classics in between my regular reads. I'm halfway through the books now and I plan on tackling Stranger in a Strange Land next.


message 9: by Veronica (new) - added it

Veronica I know, right? Speaking of non-binary gender...the Fool! Best non-binary character in all of fantasy.


Cecily Matthew wrote: "I can point you towards a genderless/non-binary sci-fi series, though the pronoun 'she' is used for everyone. Ancilliary Justice has a lot of other great ideas about it, but it borrows from Le Guin most with the use of a genderless society...."

Thanks! How odd to have genderless/non-binary characters and then use a gendered pronoun!

Also odd that, like Gethen, it's another icy landscape!


message 11: by Milo (new)

Milo O'Rourke Cecily Le Quinn said her use of mostly male pronouns was just out of instinct, and that people ought to be angry with her about it.


Matthew Quann Milo wrote: "Cecily Le Quinn said her use of mostly male pronouns was just out of instinct, and that people ought to be angry with her about it."

Thanks for the comment Milo! I don't think there's any need to be angry with LeGuin's choice to use a masculine pronoun since (to my knowledge) genderless pronouns were not yet in common use. Conversely, Leckie uses female pronouns for both male and female characters, which does a great job of making everything feel genderless in her universe.


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