J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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bookshelves: novel, america, science-fiction, reviewed, space-opera

The term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi genre. Harlan Ellison famously hated the term 'sci fi', scorning the implication that his stories had anything in common with Flash Gordon or Lost in Space.

In Speculative Fiction, technology is not there to facilitate the plot, or to dazzle readers with fantasy, but to provide the author with an opportunity to explore the human mind in unexpected, innovative ways. The heart of the genre is an introspective exploration of the nature of reality.

Much of sci fi acts metaphorically: elements in the world act as symbols for things we recognize: the conflict between the human government and alien settlers represents the immigration issue, the planet-destroying laser shows how we feel about nuclear weapons, the super computer controls and organizes people like a cult.

Speculative fiction also acts symbolically, but it is not allegorical--there is not a one-to-one relationship between the symbols of fiction and the reality we know. Instead, the authors use thematic symbols whose meanings can change, drawing us in with an odd familiarity, a presque vu , and then dropping away, leaving us with that most fundamental of human motivations: the need for a closure we cannot seem to find.

It is the evocation of this need to discover--to know--ourselves, and thus, our world, which drives the speculative; and this is what LeGuin gives us: a thoughtful, introspective tale--a tale almost obsessively isolated, narrated from deep within the characters. We always feel their presence, we hear their observations and weigh them, and there is necessarily a constant separation between the reader and the voice on the page, a gap which exists in every story, but which we often forget is there.

The trope of the 'unreliable narrator' is a fraught trap for authors, and I recall in Gene Wolfe's 'New Sun' it became a morass where reader, narrator, and author all intermingled--and the voice was lost. In order for the method to be effective, it must be clear to the reader where the narrator falters, and where he is likely to falter.

It need not be deliberately misleading, and indeed it shouldn't be: characters who feel most confident talking about themselves usually end up giving themselves away guilelessly. I admit that I am uncertain how much of the narrator's philosophizing was LeGuin's, and I won't be until I have read more of her work, but even if the assumptions are hers, she managed to capably keep them separate from her world.

Alienated, even.

But that is her constant theme, and her story is stark: events are harsh and uncertain, and so the narrative is always driven back into the mind, into rumination, into patterns and cycles which consider the same ideas from many sides without simply repeating the same conflicts over and over.

Yet the work is not remote or brooding--it has action, it has a plot, and it has emotional character interactions. The story always moves, and it shifts, giving the occasional outside view of another character, or some piece of alien myth, which were particularly unusual and well-constructed. It is not a heavy, weary tome, but it is certainly thoughtful, and we do not get lost in the story, because we are actively interested in it, and in its outcomes, because they are made personally important.

The book held some disappointments for me--chiefly, I wished that the contemplations had delved a bit deeper, had been a bit more shocking, a bit more insightful, as the myths often were; but the narrator was stolid, in his way. I sometimes became annoyed at how thick-headed he was, how he failed to find solutions, but I sympathized in the fact that the solutions he sought were never easy to find, and that the central theme of the book was that it didn't matter if we found answers, because we so rarely ask the right questions, anyways.

The pseudo-scientific elements often felt superfluous, especially in such a character-driven story. The implications of technology and telepathy are only as interesting as their impact on society and thought. She would sometimes bring in such notions, but they were always abortive, and added little to the story. They did provide a bit of wonder, but LeGuin was too ready to analyze them, to structure them, which made them quotidian without enmeshing them meaningfully into the world she had built.

Also central was the exploration of gender, which was truly alien and speculative, but felt somewhat plodding and small. It feel true to the character, which I appreciate, but I would not have minded him breaking out of his shell, now and then, to hit on something that was a bit beyond him to really comprehend. I cannot say if the shallowness was the character's, or the author's, which means the writing was good enough to avoid transparency.

But I was left with a sense of being unsatisfied, a desire for more introspection, a deeper plunge, if only to dredge up unexpected questions. Yet the structure, the character, the world, and the tone were all so carefully, specifically laid that I felt duly impressed. This book is a work, and it is a success, and if it does not reach too high, at least it does not fall to pretension, which is the danger of any redefinition which seeks to uplift entertainment to Art.

But this is only my first LeGuin, and she deserves a second look. If she can deliver another vision, as carefully made as this one, but on a different theme, with a different sort of character, than I will be extremely impressed. If, however, she is only capable of one mode, one character, one theme--like Vonnegut--it is still a style worth experiencing at least once, and probably a handful of times.
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Reading Progress

August 16, 2011 – Started Reading
August 17, 2011 – Shelved
August 17, 2011 – Shelved as: novel
August 17, 2011 – Shelved as: america
August 18, 2011 – Shelved as: science-fiction
August 26, 2011 – Shelved as: reviewed
August 26, 2011 – Finished Reading
September 13, 2011 – Shelved as: space-opera

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim My favorite SF by her is The Lathe of Heaven & I love her fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, although I only read the first 3 books of that series. Back when I read it, it was a trilogy, but it has now been expanded.

J.G. Keely Yeah, I've meant to read the Earthsea books for some time, but I got to this one first. I'll have to keep an eye out.

Dr M Great review. I find little to disagree with.

I would say, from my readings of Le Guin (which are far from complete), that the speculations, observations and opinions she expresses through her characters are chiefly her own (compare with e.g. Heinlein, who tends to "throw ideas out there" without necessarily being entirely convinced by them himself), but there is nothing wrong with that, when done skilfully and insightfully.

On that point, I think Le Guin, in her early works, is one of the very best. That's where she studies humans, individuals, there ethics and motivations. Sometime in the late 70's she became more political, and more preaching (I speculate that at that point she had started taking her audience for granted). Given what you liked about The Left Hand of Darkness, I would like to echo Jim's suggestion of The Lathe of Heaven, which in my opinion is probably her best book of those I have read. You might also want to pick up The Dispossessed for much the same reasons.

Finally, about telepathy and such things in TLHOD: if you read the earlier books in the Hain cycle, this will make more sense to you. Hain was never meant to to be a series as such, and there are inconsistencies between the books, as Le Guin let her universe develop. TLHOD sits right on one such transition. I agree that this is to the books disadvantage, but it is not so much a half-baked idea, as an idea that Le Guin was (at this point maybe not yet consciously) about to leave behind.

Daniel Wonderful review. I highly recommend that you read "The Dispossessed" as your next Leguin. It is a bigger canvas, and Leguin uses it to delve further into big questions.

J.G. Keely Thanks for the suggestions, I'll definitely keep an eye out for those as I explore LeGuin's works.

Tatiana I wonder how far you've gotten into Le Guin, by now. There is definitely a quality to her work that grows with more readings. It's the sort of thing that one can't say in words, though. It may have to do with her philosophical Taoism. The character of Estraven in this book exhibits it well. He is ready. When the rest of the world is caught up in their various intrigues and power struggles, Estraven alone is ready for the advent of the Ecumen. He knows when the great wheel of events turns under his hand with a gentle push, and he acts.

J.G. Keely I read several of her Hainish books and the first of the Earthsea series, but then I started writing my novel and so it's been nothing but Victorian sci fi and horror since then to maintain my voice. I intend to go back to Le Guin once I'm done, probably starting with the Lathe of Heaven and The Dispossessed.

Kyle With this book (see my review), I found reinforced my contention that the most Awarded and lauded books by sci-fi authors tend to be their weakest in execution, usually because they manage to dredge up some "speculation" which some cohort of adolescent (minded) readers find novel in itself. Like pop radio hits, they always have a hook, usually in stead of more subtle attractions. Here it is "what if people were androgynous!" --a concept far better explored in traditional myth, maybe the oldest "speculation" in the world--which her readers, but not LeGuin herself, seem to have taken as somehow novel and central, even as it is treated incompletely and passim in the book. Usually, when LeGuin can evoke (or ape) such myth, she is more successful than when she approaches realism/modernism. Better still are the cases when she manages to weave them together into surrealism (I am thinking here of some of the stronger entries in her collection "Changing Planes," which is a wonderful thing to read during cross-country air travel).

Similarly praised, though middling, is Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," where "what if the Axis won!" is the central, though painfully obvious, conceit of a book that stifles rather than elevates Dick's true voice.

You will be happy to know that the immaculate Library of America will soon be releasing The Complete Orsinia, a collection of LeGuin stories set in a fictional European nation, which is purportedly far more amenable to sophisticated (non-sci-fi) tastes, and consequently seldom mentioned.

J.G. Keely Kyle said: "the most Awarded and lauded books by sci-fi authors tend to be their weakest in execution"

I'd say this rule can be generally expanded to lit awards, too--that committees tend to miss the subtle, transgressive works early in an author's career, and then by way of apology clap an award onto a more staid, predictable later work, once the author has already established themselves (which is certainly a safe method, on their parts). I also think of works like Things Fall Apart or The Yellow Wallpaper, where their prominence is due mostly to their place and themes, not the skill or style with which they were created.

However, as comparatively weak as the theme of androgyny was,
I felt this book was raised through its execution--the tone, voice, characterization, and details. What you termed 'omission' I found achieved a sort of Chekhovian subtlety, when Le Guin was at her best--hinting at the greater depths beneath instead of simply outlining and explaining them, as so much sci fi is cursed to do.

I will agree that she isn't always successful, that sometimes it becomes too vague, too obscured--but she certainly did enough to lift her work above the dross. I am curious to read more of her, there's certainly ample room for tightening and fine tuning of her style. I'll have to keep an eye out for the Orsinia.

"Similarly praised, though middling, is Dick's "The Man in the High Castle,""

I've started that one twice, and never managed to maintain much interest in it. Any suggestions on where else I might break into his work?

message 10: by Kyle (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kyle "Any suggestions on where else I might break into his work?"

This is a difficult question to answer. PKD is (i) overly prolific, (ii) has several distinct periods which will respectively appeal to or annoy people of different tastes to varying degrees, and is (iii) very uneven. Thankfully, most of his books are quite short (published originally as cheap paperbacks with limited page-counts, which is why he has an award named after him for books published as first-run paperbacks), so you can skip around his oeuvre without much commitment. Most die-hard fans will have a very idiosyncratic list of favorites.

Personally, I began with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, mostly because of an obsession in my youth with Blade Runner, which I rented repeatedly as a worn-out VHS from Hollywood Video. As such, I would say I am sentimentally attached to it, as well as another paperback I had then, Galactic Pot-Healer. I recommend them but doubt I can be truly objective about them. They are largely meditations on human authenticity. I think that A Scanner Darkly is probably a good place to start too, if you aren't bothered by (or enjoy) the theme (drugs). For the "masterpieces" according to those who purport to know such things, just consult the list of works included in The Philip K. Dick Collection. It contains 13 of the approximately 44 published novels. He also wrote some clever (and a lot of not-so-clever) short stories. Those included in Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick are probably more than enough for most, although there are some notable omissions.

message 11: by Dr M (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dr M With both Dick and Le Guin, I would also like to add don't forget about their short stories. I can't claim expertise on either author, but have read some of both, and like many science fiction authors, they are often better in the short format than as novelists. For Dick, one place to start – though the best or not I can't say – could be the collection Minority Report, where the title story at least should be familiar. For Le Guin, The Wind's Twelve Quarters is a classic collection, and quite good (mixed sf and fantasy), though she has written several other collections, most of which I have yet to read myself.

message 12: by Dr M (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dr M Kyle, I think you may need to look a little deeper regarding the "speculation". In The Left Hand, the speculation isn't really "what if people were androgynous", but "if we take away gender, we will have what is human." This is certainly a popular notion with the "gender is just a social construction and doesn't exist" crowd – and I think Le Guin genuinely believed that by stripping away gender she would find the truly human. To me the philosophically most interesting part of the book is how Le Guin, inadvertently (I think), actually answers her own question in the negative: if we strip away gender, what is left is barely recognisable as human. This teaches us something important: gender identity (and therefore our right to our gender identity, whether cis or trans) is not simply a social construction that can be done away with (though expressions of gender identity clearly have a social context), but for most of us is an integral part of our identity, and of what makes us human. The corollary, of course, is that this is why it is difficult (for cis-gendered people who have never had to think about it), and takes a conscious effort, to try to understand those who actually don't have a predominantly male/female gender identity and expression.

Similarly with The Man in the High castle, the core speculation isn't really "what if the axis had won". This is just setting a stage that allows Dick to explore a different kind of society (not entirely convincingly, I thought, but that's beside the point), and further use that to explore the role of alternate history in fiction by positing the existence of a book in which the Allies counterfactually won the war.

message 13: by Kyle (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kyle Dr. M said: ”Kyle, I think you may need to look a little deeper...”

What you are interpreting as superficiality on my part is really just brevity in characterizing the treatments in these books as themselves superficial. It doesn't matter how you restate these characterizations (as you do in your post); the point is that, however you characterize, the works don't rise to their reputation of being “groundbreaking” meditations on the topics: speculations which are not, on serious review, very original, and which themselves are dealt with more robustly and seriously, not only in philosophy and modern creative literature, but in ancient oral traditions of myth. It doesn't matter what the Eagles' Hotel California is “about,” or how you argue about the symbolism and themes or convince yourself that someone else just doesn't “get it”; it is still just a pop song! It is not Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, or Berg. I love the song (and I really like LeGuin's book)! But if you think it obtains the the same level of sophistication as those composers, I just can't take you seriously. Is this slavish formalism? Aesthetic snobbery? Maybe, but as you keep stripping away form from artistic expression you are eventually just left with grunts. LeGuin refuses to adopt the position of a philosopher (she calls herself a liar), so I can't critique her on that, but the only reason you are able to use the jargon vocabulary on gender/sexuality that we are using is because of feminists and other scholars that precede and excel anything LeGuin has to say on the topic. If her purpose is not philosophical, and her book is aesthetically inferior, then it must follow that it is merely good, and not, therefore, an apotheosis of the canon.

You say about your interpretation of the book ”This teaches us something important...”. My point is that it only teaches you something if you were ignorant of it before. There is a whole world of literature out here. This particular book is among neither the first, or the best teachers. Of course, when the student is ready, the teacher appears...

I want to be clear here that I am really criticizing the (sci-fi) publishing and critical community more than the authors themselves. The idea, for instance, that Dick “invented” alternate-history fiction with TMITHC is utterly absurd, but is frequently parroted, though provably false (see: Livy, Ab Urbe condita). Similarly, LeGuin is prompted here by a long trail of feminism and gender theory expressed not only in scholarship but in creative literature, to integrate such a digression on it into a story. She is merely a minor interpreter of a theme. By most measures she arrives at the party quite late, and not in stupendous livery. It's not that she doesn't do an entertaining and interesting thing, it's just that it's nothing all that special, in quality or timing.

This is the irony of sci-fi as a publishing category: It usually purports to be about the future when, formally, it is decades (or centuries) behind the curve. It pretends to be about innovation when its most celebrated works are written with the most staid and formulaic literary contrivances. It pretends to have the widest vision when the bulk of its readers live in a vacuum where nothing but Cliff's notes and bestsellers enter from beyond the great literary event horizon. It has a serious identity crisis that hasn't been solved. Dick understood that it was a “trash” genre, and used its tropes to become a big fish in a small pond, to excellent effect, and I would argue, in so doing, transcended the category utterly. My contention is less about the relative value of the works discussed here, and more about the way genre readers tribally seize on certain works as exceptional, when usually they are merely exceptional in a tiny sphere of mostly bad writing that the typical genre reader is submerged in. All these marketable conceits are old-hat, and therefore, shouldn't get special attention compared to superior works by the same authors. What matters is the nuanced and substantial execution. I love Philip K. Dick, but TMITHC just isn't that successful. It managed to get ejected briefly into the mainstream because the central speculation has a cute “hook” that people are interested in, rather than the more difficult material that Dick excels at elsewhere.

J.G. Keely Kyle said: "a difficult question to answer. PKD is (i) overly prolific, (ii) has several distinct periods which will respectively appeal to or annoy people of different tastes to varying degrees, and is (iii) very uneven"

Yeah, that matches what I've heard, I'll just have to try a few and see what sticks. Thanks for the suggestions.

"I began with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, mostly because of an obsession in my youth with Blade Runner"

I have to admit a similar inclination, hoping that, as Dick himself said, "The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel".

Oh, by the way, I started Orsinian Tales today--I hadn't realized that it was already in the to-read pile next to my bed, as due to the cover art, I assumed it was one of the later sequels to Earthsea and not its own setting.

message 15: by prcardi (last edited Feb 27, 2017 07:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

prcardi Excellent review. Good job picking out where she failed to reach for heights but also mostly avoided pretension. I too was entertained and impressed but left wishing that more had been accomplished.

Ms.pegasus Thoughtful review of a truly difficult book.

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