Werner's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Mar 20, 2008

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bookshelves: science-fiction, books-i-own
Recommended to Werner by: It was required reading for a correspondence course in science f
Recommended for: Fans of serious science fiction
Read in May, 1996

As the description above suggests, this is a complex novel of ideas, rather than the type of action-oriented science fiction many readers have always preferred (actually, both types of works have always been present in the genre) --though it does have some intrigue, and a cross-country flight from danger through a harsh winter landscape. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; expression of ideas that make us think are among the rewards that good literature has to offer. The major ideas Le Guin makes us think about here are those related to gender; our social identities are heavily bound up with our gender, but on Gethen each individual is ambisexual, so gender distinctions do not exist.

Personally, unlike some critics, I don't interpret this novel as a claim that human beings are really already ambisexual in significant ways, each having personality traits associated with the opposite sex. Her male human narrator has no feminine traits; and elsewhere, Le Guin recognizes legitimate gender differences between humans. Rather, Gethenian ambisexuality is a literary conceit that serves to remind us that our gender identity is less important than our common humanity, not an all -encompassing strait-jacket that renders us virtually two separate species and defines everything we are or can be. The novel becomes an eloquent plea for us to judge each other for who we individually are, by the content of our character rather than our anatomy. Also contrary to some critics, it is not an implied apologetic for homosexuality or bisexuality, and the "romance" some of them allege between the narrator and a Gethenian character simply doesn't exist in the book --Genly Ai overcomes his prejudices to learn to recognize Estraven as a "friend," not as a lover. (The book has little sexual content at all.)
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