Meredith's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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's review
Dec 26, 2016

liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction

Before, I can talk about the book, we need establish some terminology:
Gender = social and cultural construct, characteristics that members of a particular sex are expected to display, varying widely among different societies and cultures.
Sex = physical and biological structure, determined by one's sex chromosomes and endocrine system.
Gender = man and woman, boy and girl.
Sex = male, female, and intersex (formerly known as hermaphrodite, accounting for approximately 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births per year).

The story is set on the planet Gethen (known as Winter because it is locked in an Ice Age). The Gethenians have no gender and only have a physical biological sex for 2 to 5 days each month during the "kemmer" phase of their reproductive cycle. A person can either be male or female, depending upon the hormonal interplay with a potential sexual partner with whom they are in close physical proximity or contact. (Although the official description of this phenomenon insists that a person has no predisposition towards one sex or the other, the characters' backstories reveal a tendency to develop one sex far more often than the other.) Some people do have a fixed sex as the result of a genetic disorder, and they are considered to be "perverts" and are ostracized by mainstream Gethenian society. The Gethenians' ambisexuality is thought by members of the Ekumen to be the result of a genetic experiment by the original Hainish colonizers thousands of years previously. Ursula K. Le Guin displays her anthropological skills in the elaborate worldbuilding. The tidbits of traditional Gethenian culture (mainly from Karhide) sprinkled throughout this book left me wanting more. I wanted to read more of legends, more of the philosophical scripture, and more of the individual histories.

Genry Ai is the envoy tasked with making first contact with Gethen and persuading them to join the Ekumen, which is a loose alliance between/confederation of planets habited by humanoid species for the purposes of trade and exchange of ideas and culture. His strongest ally is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven whom Genry initialy distrusts partly because of a cultural misunderstanding and partly because he misinterprets Estraven's motives and actions. Once Estraven falls out of the king's favor, Genry, to his great surprise, suddenly finds his life and mission in peril. To Genry's equal astonishment, it is Estraven who risks his life to save him.

I started and stopped this book several times before finally finishing it. Partly because it was set on a planet in perpetual winter, which I found almost as disturbing as Dune being set on a desert planet. Both fit my varying ideas of Hell and eternal torment albeit in opposite extremes. But I persevered because it is a landmark work of science fiction.

When The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, its exploration of the roles of sex and gender in society and cultural was revolutionary. The very idea that a male could at different times also be a female, and a female had the equal chance of being a male, was truly shocking. The idea that one could simply be a human with no gender was unimaginable. While I still found these ideas interesting, they didn't have the same impact on me as the original readers even though I did still find some of the mashups between gendered words jarring at times. (view spoiler).

Mainstream Western society simply doesn't have the same rigid gender roles as it did when this book was written and in which its first wave of readers grew up. This book was also written in a pre-feminist society. One of the questions raised was whether females were mentally inferior to males, which most contemporary societies would consider completely outrageous and offensive. The cultural shift over the last half century made it difficult for me to empathize with the main character. I couldn't understand Genry's constant horror when Gethenians he viewed as male largely due to their positions in society displayed feminine traits. I live in a world where women commonly work formerly male dominated industries although it is less common for men to do those traditionally seen as "women's work", and paternity leave is common and encouraged in most First World countries. The equality between the sexes in Gethenian society, created by lack of a fixed sex, is the aspiration of modern society ... even if it is given nothing more than lip service. When reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I constantly puzzled over the American society that created this book. That was almost as alien to me as the world of Gethen.

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Quotes Meredith Liked

Ursula K. Le Guin
“For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our better journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that. I do not know if we were right.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
tags: love

Reading Progress

October 21, 2008 – Shelved
September 2, 2010 – Shelved as: science-fiction
November 10, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
November 29, 2016 – Started Reading
December 19, 2016 –
page 77
31.05% ""On Winter... one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.""
December 27, 2016 –
page 123
49.6% ""To oppose something is to maintain it.""
December 30, 2016 –
page 138
55.65% ""It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have.""
December 30, 2016 –
page 138
55.65% ""It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have.""
December 30, 2016 –
page 148
59.68% "Asra: This here is just the world. It's how it is. You get born into it ... things are as they are."
January 2, 2017 –
page 170
68.55% ""One alien is a curiosity; two are an invasion.""
January 2, 2017 –
page 173
69.76% "Estraven: A man who doesn't detest a bad government is a fool."
January 7, 2017 –
page 190
76.61% ""Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one, life and death, lying / together like lovers in Kenner, / like hands joined together, / like the end and the way.""
January 8, 2017 –
page 203
81.85% ""A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.""
January 11, 2017 –
page 241
97.18% ""... his face, a young, serious face, not a man's face and not a woman's, a human face ...""
January 11, 2017 – Finished Reading

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