Apatt's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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it was amazing
bookshelves: pre-80s-sf, sci-fi

“It was daunting, also, to me as a novelist. To invent a radically different sexual physiology and behaviour, not just as a speculation, but embodied in a novel, a story about people – people who most of the time were quite sexless but went into heat once a month, one time as a woman another time as a man? To get into the hearts and minds of such strange beings, bring them to being as characters – that would take some skill, not to mention chutzpah.”

So says SF legend, Ms. Ursula K. Le Guin, in her introduction to this sci-fi classic. Fortunately, skill and chutzpah are not things she is short of. The Left Hand Of Darkness is her “thought experiment” to explore the idea of a human society without gender, no men or women, only people—and they are not aliens. The ramifications of this condition are numerous, no war, an odd concept in connection with “saving face”, uncontrollable sexual urges during “kemmer”*, no interest in sex during “somer”** etc.

The plotline centers around Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen (a sort of galactic EU or UN), whose mission is to invite Gethen—a planet in the middle of an Ice Age—to join the Ekumen for various mutual benefits. The trouble is the concept of other planets is unknown to the Gethenians, who do not even have a word for flying, as there are no flying animals or insects on their planet. Air travel is also an unknown concept.

Gethen (A.K.A. Winter) by Freak-Angel56

This means that Genly’s claim to be a visitor from another planet come across as bizarre madness to most Gethenians. To make matters worse, his single-sex makes him a pervert by their standard. The only Gethenian with the imagination to believe Genly’s claim is Therem Harth rem i’r Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, the country where Genly’s little rocket lands (the Ekumen’s spaceship is orbiting Gethen). Unfortunately, this belief causes poor Estraven to be stripped of his title and exiled. For the sake of progress Genly’s mission must succeed, and Estraven is his only hope.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is a mind blowing, wonderful read. While it is quite short, 276 pages, it is not a book to be plowed through quickly in a couple of days. Le Guin sets a slow, steady pace throughout the book, gradually exploring the setting, the geography, the culture and, of course, the characters.

Speaking of the setting I really like that there are multiple nations on this planet, in every other sci-fi books I have read the authors literally “imagine there’s no country” on alien planets. This makes for an even more detailed and vivid world building. The culture of the Gethenians fascinates me no end, as does their food, religion, limited technology, and strange animals. The non-gender, sometimes dual-gender, people are the most fascinating of all. Even their politics interest me, and I don’t normally like political SF, even Le Guin’s own The Dispossessed is something of a drag for me.

When I first read The Left Hand Of Darkness a few years ago I really liked the beginning and the end of the book, but there is a long section of around 50 pages in the second half of the book that depicts the two main characters’ trek across eight hundred miles of glacier that I found (at the time) to be very slow going, and a chore to get through; much like how our two heroes feel about their journey. However, forewarned is forearmed and I was ready for it this time and tried to concentrate harder while reading this “difficult” section.

Our heroes trek across the vast Gobrin Ice, from one city to another. Click image to embiggen.


To my surprise, I quite like most of it, especially the interactions between the two characters, in isolation from everybody else on the planet. The bonding and lowering of their personal barriers, and the eventual friendship (no, they don’t “get it on”). Their eighty days trek is often quite harrowing and I could almost feel icicles forming on my nose while their journey goes on and on. It does seem interminable at times, but my patience was not overly taxed on this occasion. I felt almost as relieved as Genly and Estraven when their journey ended, and the subsequent plotline is very satisfying and poignant.

I would like to say that I emerged from reading The Left Hand Of Darkness a better and wiser man, but that would be ridiculous. I did feel quite uplifted afterward, though, I almost broke out into a song.

Deservedly a classic, not to be missed.

_____________________
* kemmer: The period of potency and fertility in the Gethenian sexual cycle, lasting three to five days, recurring every twenty-five to thirty days. (from the author’s glossary at the end of the book)

**Somer: The period of sexual latency and infertility in the Gethenian sexual cycle, lasting 25 to 30 days. (from the author’s glossary at the end of the book)

Notes:
The Left Hand Of Darkness is part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a sort of “Le Guin-verse” where most of her sci-fi stories are set (nothing to do with Earthsea then).

• I am not sure why this book is often called a feminist novel. The Gethenians have no fixed gender, and seem to value their occasional maleness or femaleness equally. The advantage of either gender type is not actually discussed.

• My dear friend, and ace reviewer, Cecily doesn't dig it, but then she's crazy my GR BFF so I let it slide. Besides, perhaps her right hand digs it, but her left hand didn't get the memo. ;)

TV series adaptation in the works.
_____________________
Quotes:
“Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.”

‘You? No.’ He stared even more closely at me. ‘I don’t know what the devil you are, Mr. Ai, a sexual freak or an artificial monster or a visitor from the Domains of the Void,

“Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion.”

“Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/ protected, dominant/ submissive, owner/ chattel, active/ passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found.”
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Quotes Apatt Liked

Ursula K. Le Guin
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
“It is a terrible thing, this kindess that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give. ”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness


Reading Progress

May 18, 2011 – Shelved
June 19, 2016 – Started Reading
June 26, 2016 – Finished Reading
June 27, 2016 – Shelved as: pre-80s-sf
June 27, 2016 – Shelved as: sci-fi

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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Matthew Quann Awesome review, this looks great!


Apatt Matthew wrote: "Awesome review, this looks great!"

Thank you, Matthew. It's as great as it looks :)


Michael I appreciate your thoughtful genial review. Maybe you didn't emerge a "better and wiser man", but it made me a better boy when as a youth I set aside all thse Heinleins for this more well rounded approach to science fiction. One can argue about the foudations of gender roles and impact on social reality and history (e.g. the end of war without the masculine drives), but the what-if thought experiment of a society with altered physiology from the perspective of a monsexual diplomat was brilliant.


Apatt Michael wrote: "I appreciate your thoughtful genial review. Maybe you didn't emerge a "better and wiser man", but it made me a better boy when as a youth I set aside all thse Heinleins for this more well rounded a..."

Thanks, Michael. What do you think of The Dispossessed? Maybe I will like it better if I give it another go.


Cecily Yay, you finally reviewed it - and it was worth the wait. I enjoyed your review rather more than the book.*

It's interesting timing (for me) to be reminded of this snowy trek. Like you first time round, I found that part tedious. But I've just finished a three-volume Icelandic novel, which includes similar battles against the elements, and I loved that. A very different style of writing, though.

"I would like to say that I emerged... a better and wiser man, but that would be ridiculous."

I hope this is minor criticism of the book, rather than hitherto unknown arrogance on your part! As Gwendolen told Cecily, "Oh, I hope I am not perfect. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions."

"I am not sure why this book is often called a feminist novel."

From what I recall, it's not so much feminist nowadays, as gender-neutral, which is possibly better.


Thanks for the name check and link, GR BFF. Maybe the confusion of my hands is because I'm ambidextrous?


* Unfortunately, that's a rather low bar!


Apatt Cecily wrote: "Thanks for the name check and link, GR BFF. Maybe the confusion of my hands is because I'm ambidextrous?

* Unfortunately, that's a rather low bar! ..."


What's wrong with low bars? The drinks are cheap, though you may want to bring your own glass ;)

So, while reading this here book, were you thinking you wanted to Gethenexit?


Cecily Apatt wrote: "So, while reading this here book, were you thinking you wanted to Gethenexit?"

Better Gethenexit than Brexit imo.
:'(


message 8: by Michael (new) - added it

Michael I've read her Earthsea books and some of her other work but I've never read this.


Apatt Michael wrote: "I've read her Earthsea books and some of her other work but I've never read this."

My favorite of hers is actually The Lathe of Heaven :)


Michael Apatt wrote: "Thanks, Michael. What do you think of The Dispossessed? Maybe I will like it better if I give it another go.."

I liked it better, though that comes from a naive youth's sensibilities. It almost had a Japanese feel the way it was so stripped down to essences. Whole planets were dominated by analogues of socialist and capitalist ideologies and the lead character stepping up to make the needed bridge of hybrid solutions (yeah, just like China). Pretty simplistic with regard to political and economic realities, but some kind of purity of focus shines as must-read classic. But what do I know, I rated Lather of Heaven low, gave 5 stars to Hunger Games and the Alchemist.


message 11: by Skip (new)

Skip Just could not get through this one. Has been on my nightstand for more than a decade.


Ivana Books Are Magic love your review!


Apatt Ivana wrote: "love your review!"

Thanks, Ivana!

Skip, no need to get throughg it if it doesn't work for you :)


message 14: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Ansbro Excellent, Apatt!
I love that concept of a planet having countries. You're so right. Every sci-fi author assumes that a planet is just, um ... a planet!


Apatt Kevin wrote: "Excellent, Apatt!
I love that concept of a planet having countries. You're so right. Every sci-fi author assumes that a planet is just, um ... a planet!"


In John Lennon's planet there's no countries ;)


message 16: by A. (new) - rated it 1 star

A. Dawes Felt completely different about it, but loved the commentary in your review.


Apatt A. wrote: "Felt completely different about it, but loved the commentary in your review."

Thank you, A. :)


message 18: by Lars (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lars Dradrach Probably one of the very first SF stories I read and part of the reason I still read SF today, but at around the age of 15 I'm sure I missed a lot, so based on your review it enters the to reread pile.


Apatt Lars wrote: "Probably one of the very first SF stories I read and part of the reason I still read SF today, but at around the age of 15 I'm sure I missed a lot, so based on your review it enters the to reread p..."

Thank you, Lars. This year is the year of the rereads for me :)


message 20: by Lars (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lars Dradrach Same here, reread Lord of the Rings and are doing the Baroque Cycle at the moment, planning on doing Clarkes Rama books (all of them this time) later this year.


message 21: by Joe (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joe I liked your review better than I liked the novel. Perhaps I should give it another go. And thanks for taking time to write down your coherent thoughts; you have an ordered mind.


Apatt Joe wrote: "I liked your review better than I liked the novel. Perhaps I should give it another go. And thanks for taking time to write down your coherent thoughts; you have an ordered mind."

Thank you so much, Joe! That gives me the confidence to do my PowerPoint presentation (which I really hate to do) at work tomorrow! :D

I don't know if you should give it another go, may as well read books that appeal more to you :)


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