Ian "Marvin" Graye'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: my-sci-fanta-side, read-2013, reviews, le-guin, reviews-5-stars

No Mere Extrapolation

"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a work of science fiction published by Ursula Le Guin in 1969.

At the time, it sought to differentiate itself from most other science fiction in two ways.

Firstly, as Le Guin explains in a subsequent introduction, it didn’t just take a current phenomenon and extrapolate it scientifically into the future in some predictive or cautionary fashion.

Secondly, it explored the nature of sexuality as a subject matter from a sophisticated, feminist point of view.

She goes beyond semiotics, the linguistic significance of gender, and ventures into the philosophy, psychology and aesthetics of gender representation.

From a psychological perspective, she examines the symbolic role of gender. From an aesthetic perspective, she uses it as a metaphor.

From all points of view, she is interested in gender as the arena of power and its abuse.

Just My Imagination

Le Guin's dual ambitions were supportive of each other.

In order to explore the possibilities of "ambisexuality", she had to construct a whole new sexual, social and political world that was materially different from the known world.

To do so, she had to eschew the simplistic and rationalistic approach of traditional science fiction, and invent a new, alternative society (in fact, more than one), that could throw our own society into sharp relief. The novel had to be a fully-fledged work of the imagination rather than a work of methodical extrapolation.

The imaginative qualities are what makes "The Left Hand of Darkness" a great work of literature, regardless of genre.

Read now, almost half a century later, the novel still achieves its goals in style. The prose is economical rather than effusive, often lyrical, but sometimes dry, especially in some of the more descriptive passages. Overall, Le Guin is a master of the craft of elegant, if understated, writing.

description

Ambisexuality

The inhabitants of the planet Gethen are "double-sexed" human beings (possibly the descendants of an experiment conducted by Terran (Earth-based) colonizers).

What does this mean? [This is a purely technical explanation which is revealed fairly early in the novel.]

(view spoiler)

So it’s not appropriate or relevant to refer to Gethenians as "he" or "she". This is not just significant from a semiotic point of view. As a direct result, the chauvinism of Terra (Earth) is unknown.

The Style of Its Telling

There are two chief protagonists: Genly Ai, a "Mobile" or Diplomatic Envoy assigned to negotiate a Treaty whereby the Gethenian state of Karhide joins a multi-world federation called Ekumen; and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide.

Negotiations do not go smoothly, and the ordeal turns into an 81 day journey across the freezing glacial environment of an inhospitable planet.

The plot, such as it is, is functional. It is largely a vehicle to allow the differences in sexual, social and political characteristics to be showcased.

Most of it is portrayed in alternating journal entries by Estraven or sections from Ai’s official report:

"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

"The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust.

"Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

"The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story."


Even in these concise introductory sentences, Le Guin neatly summarises her approach. She is concerned with facts, the truth, imagination, story-telling, the collaboration of different voices that might or might not form a harmonious composite.

Submission Impossible

The Gethenians are not socially aggressive or even, it seems, acquisitive, in a personal or collective manner. Technological progress is incremental and measured. They don’t know war. They have eliminated the masculinity behind the rapist and the femininity behind the rape victim, resulting in the elimination of rape and sexual abuse.

This leaves them as a people free to concentrate on their one shared enemy, the environment, the cold, the Winter, the Ice.

Subject to the perils of the climate, their religion (Handdara) allows them to concentrate on an intensified trance-like experience of the present, what they call the Presence, which involves a loss of self through "extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness".

Pleasure derives from sensitivity rather than subjection or submission.

What is missing, absent two genders, is the subjugation of one by the other.

"Shifgrethor"

As a whole, the Gethenians are competitive, though more in pursuit of "shifgrethor", their measure of personal esteem, pride, status, prestige, honour, integrity, "face".

The word derives from the old word for "shadow". Each person must "cast their own shadow".

A shadow requires both light and dark to exist. Even though they avoid the dualism of gender, their whole or "holism" is still dualistic.

This dualism is in fact the source of the novel’s title:

"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 kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way."


Ai recognises the resemblance to Zen Buddhism, and shows Estraven a familiar symbol:

"It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, [Estraven]. Both and one. A shadow on snow."

This dualistic holism summarises the paradox at the heart of their ambisexuality: they are "both and one".

description

I and Thou

There is another way in which dualism manifests itself. Gethenians can still pair off, in love and by vow:

"Ai brooded, and after some time he said, 'You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.'

" 'We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other.' "


Later, the personal becomes political, and the political becomes personal. Ai applies the language of loneliness to his own mission as a lone Envoy trying to persuade Karhide to join Ekumen:

"I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy.

"But there's more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it.

"Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political.

"Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical.

"In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means."


As posited by Martin Buber, meaningfulness derives from our relationships.

And a successful relationship, a diplomatic one just as much as a personal one, must have the right beginning.

Into the Mystic

One aspect in which the Terrans are more advanced than the Gethenians is their capacity for "mindspeech", a form of telepathy.

Its origins are not explained. However, if you wish to hold together and govern a federation of 83 planets, you must be able to protect yourself against lying and dishonesty:

" 'Mindspeech is communication, voluntarily sent and received.'

" 'Then why not speak aloud?'

" 'Well, one can lie, speaking.'

" 'Not mindspeaking?'

" 'Not intentionally.' "


At a personal level, then, just as much as a political level, mindspeech represents the ability of two to communicate sincerely, of two to become one, of the ability of I and Thou to bond, of I and Thou to become We, of We to become something not just political, not just pragmatic, but something mystical.

In this sense, Le Guin’s great achievement is to demonstrate that the conquest of gender difference holds within it the potential to transcend the material, to escape abuse, to leave behind the darkness and to embrace the light.
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Reading Progress

April 5, 2013 – Shelved
April 5, 2013 – Shelved as: my-sci-fanta-side
May 5, 2013 – Started Reading
May 9, 2013 – Shelved as: read-2013
May 9, 2013 – Shelved as: reviews
May 9, 2013 – Finished Reading
November 28, 2016 – Shelved as: le-guin
January 29, 2018 – Shelved as: reviews-5-stars

Comments Showing 1-50 of 63 (63 new)


message 1: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim I have to read some Ursula Le Guin. I've stupidly spent most of my life avoiding science fiction.


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye This is part of a quick read in the Mievillean Discussion Group that's happening now. I'm really looking forward to it. Why don't you join us?

http://www.goodreads.com/topic/group_...


message 3: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim I might do that, Ian. Thanks for the invite. I'll see how I go with (a) getting hold of the book and (b)making the time to read it. I haven't read any Miéville, though, so the discussion could well go sailing over my head.


Brian Another very well written and interesting review, Ian. Nicely done.


Brian Do my eyes deceive me? Did the rating just jump a star? Yay!!


message 6: by Bill (new)

Bill i read this for a sf course i took at university in 1973, so have completely forgotten it, but i remember really liking it. must read it again.


message 7: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Great review. Ian. I'll be reading this next.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Ambisexuality sounds frustrating to me.


s.penkevich Wow, this sounds good. Phenomenal review, as always. I really need to check out Le Guin, aside from her one short story everyone reads in school.


message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Brian wrote: "Do my eyes deceive me? Did the rating just jump a star? Yay!!"

It did, indeed. I wondered about the need for so much material about the journey and originally gave it four stars. Then I realised that the other content that I loved far outweighed it. The way I rate, I don't require a book to be perfect, whatever that could mean anyway, to award five stars.


message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Anthony wrote: "Ambisexuality sounds frustrating to me."

Haha. Ironically, it's supposed to be the opposite.


message 12: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye s.penkevich wrote: "Wow, this sounds good. Phenomenal review, as always. I really need to check out Le Guin, aside from her one short story everyone reads in school."

Thanks, spenke. I'm sure you'd love it. What is the short story?


message 13: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Kim wrote: "Great review. Ian. I'll be reading this next."

Thanks, Kim. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It would be great to get some different perspectives. There was a lot I didn't discuss, because of concerns about spoilers.


message 14: by [deleted user] (last edited May 09, 2013 03:44PM) (new)

Ian wrote: "Haha. Ironically, it's supposed to be the opposite."

Say what you will, about gender roles and expectations, but it's a struggle enough to get being just one right (if ever). Having to worry about whether I will be male or female would be stressful. And imagine if you like being one over the other, but like bad luck at a coin toss, you keep getting heads everytime you say tails. Plus you have to perform in different ways to attract different sexes during these periods? I'll stick with the frustrations of being a heterosexual male, thanks.


message 15: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Brian wrote: "Another very well written and interesting review, Ian. Nicely done."

Thanks, Brian. I hope you like it ;)


message 16: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Anthony wrote: "Say what you will, about gender roles and expectations, but it's a struggle enough to get being just one right (if ever). Having to worry about whether I will be male or female would be stressful. ..."

I think you're right there. The Gethenians didn't envy us at all. Their way, the struggle was taken out of the equation, because it was more like a lucky dip, and they didn't care what they ended up with. Both options were equally attractive. It seemed that the sex act was very immediate as well.


s.penkevich Ian wrote: "What is the short story? "

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, which is great (I wrote a parody of it for a class in high school called 'The One's Who Walk Away From Omelet's). Read that in high school and again in college, always meant to check the rest of her work out. Interestingly enough, a co-worker of my just told me the other day this was his favorite book.


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

Ian "Marvin" Graye As a fan of Proust, for some reason, that title immediately made me think of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Cattleyas".


s.penkevich Haha, I'd read that! Doctor Cottard would be jealous.


Brian Ian wrote: "Anthony wrote: "Ambisexuality sounds frustrating to me."

Haha. Ironically, it's supposed to be the opposite."


This is 100% truth


message 21: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Brian wrote: "This is 100% truth"

My original response had been that it might be like being bi-sexual and not knowing the gender of your next sex partner, but then I remembered that the Gethenians actually (view spoiler)


message 22: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Le Guin always took on such great themes for her books. I have a copy of this book and hope to read it this year sometime. I liked the way you divided your review up into snippets. I've seen you do this before, and I find it very effective. As always great review! Intriguing concepts, eliminating the domination of gender would give us an opportunity for true equality. Case in point my wife called service people to look at our air conditioning unit. The guy told her it would be $250. I arrived talked to him for a few minutes and the bill was reduced to $127. My wife rather sarcastically said, "I'm so glad my penis finally showed up." *Sigh* I so want to be so much more. :-)


message 23: by Dolors (new) - added it

Dolors Brilliant! Ian, your crafted review piqued my interest. It sounds like a mix between Atwood and Huxley and that can only mean this is a sure shot.
My TBR is growing exponentially, frighteningly growing, I mean to say.


Derek Ian wrote: "The Gethenians didn't envy us at all. Their way, the struggle was taken out of the equation, because it was more like a lucky dip, and they didn't care what they ended up with. "

That's the "ideal" - but of course they have their "perverts", who do care, and use drugs to ensure that they become the sex they want.


Samadrita Must get myself some Le Guin now.


message 26: by Steve (new)

Steve We can always count on you for top-notch exegesis, Ian! I didn't realize this one was so strong with its ground-breaking treatment of sexuality and the feminine perspective.


message 27: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Steve wrote: "We can always count on you for top-notch exegesis, Ian!"

Thanks, Steve. The Exegesis? Sounds like something that would make your head spin!


message 28: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Jeffrey wrote: "Le Guin always took on such great themes for her books. I have a copy of this book and hope to read it this year sometime. I liked the way you divided your review up into snippets. I've seen you do..."

Thanks, Jeffrey. I love your wife's comment.

Whether my reviews are long or short, I like to use headings as breaks and signposts. One large paragraph with no breaks makes me feel like I have to dive in and hold my breath for the duration, which I still do. Plus I like to have a bit of fun with the name of the heading.


message 29: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Derek wrote: "That's the "ideal" - but of course they have their "perverts", who do care, and use drugs to ensure that they become the sex they want."

I like the way she uses this as a way to effectively make a monosexual a pervert, although we probably wouldn't use the word "pervert" any more.


message 30: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Dolors wrote: "Brilliant! Ian, your crafted review piqued my interest. It sounds like a mix between Atwood and Huxley and that can only mean this is a sure shot."

Thanks, Dolors. I have to read some Atwood. Where to start?

I chose to explore only a few of the book's themes in my review. There is a whole other political strand where your allusion to Huxley (and also Orwell) is even more relevant. I can't wait to see what you think.


message 31: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Samadrita wrote: "Must get myself some Le Guin now."

And I must get some more.


message 32: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Bennet wrote: "I read this long ago and still have the paperback, love it, love Le Guin. Great review, and it really does the story and herself justice."

Thanks, JB, I would love to see you review it. I would love to have written more about the politics and the diplomacy, and the influence on China Mieville.


message 33: by Steve (new)

Steve Ian wrote: "Thanks, Steve. The Exegesis? Sounds like something that would make your head spin!"

Haha, no, it's not quite the same. It doesn't make anyone spew pea soup either.


message 34: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye It's a great word, even without pea soup!


message 35: by Dolors (new) - added it

Dolors Ian wrote: "Thanks, Dolors. I have to read some Atwood. Where to start?"

Mmm...I'd recommend The Handmaid's Tale, and even though I think this novel won't leave you indifferent, I should warn you that there has been a lot of controversy about it.
Let me know your opinion if you ever decide to give it a try! :)


message 36: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy It has been a long time since I've touched any of her work since I found her very preachy and leading: an issues fiction writer. I can't even remember what it was I read... So her story-telling manages to overcome the agenda in this work?


Derek No...

The last Atwood I read was Happy Zombie Sunrise Home. It wasn't preachy, but then it wasn't very good, either.


message 38: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Dolors wrote: "Ian wrote: "Mmm...I'd recommend The Handmaid's Tale, and even though I think this novel won't leave you indifferent, I should warn you that there has been a lot of controversy about it.
Let me know your opinion if you ever decide to give it a try! :) "


Haha, goody, just what I need, another controversy!


message 39: by Dolors (new) - added it

Dolors Jeremy wrote: "It has been a long time since I've touched any of her work since I found her very preachy and leading: an issues fiction writer. I can't even remember what it was I read... So her story-telling man..."

Well, I wouldn't call her voice preachy in this particular novel. She's been labelled as a feminist who uses sci-fi to make a point on her own views about society.
The Handmaid's tale produced mixed feelings in me, but it struck a chord, and I always take that as a good signal when reading a book.


message 40: by Traveller (last edited May 11, 2013 04:24AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Traveller Jeremy wrote: "It has been a long time since I've touched any of her work since I found her very preachy and leading: an issues fiction writer. I can't even remember what it was I read... So her story-telling man..."

Nope, I must admit that I found a lot of fault with the story-telling, sadly. I never found the novel to be an immersive experience.

She does raise some interesting points, so, as speculative fiction, its probably worth reading. But don't expect fluid or immersive narrative.

Oh, you are talking about Le Guin here, not Atwood, right? Atwood's style is MUCH more immersive--almost a modernist style.

Le Guin's writing comes across as very "stiff" as opposed to Atwood, and her "issues" are much more visible;-she barely disguises them. Okay, she doesn't diguise them at all. :P


message 41: by Traveller (last edited May 16, 2013 03:20AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Traveller Anthony wrote: "Ian wrote: "Haha. Ironically, it's supposed to be the opposite."

Say what you will, about gender roles and expectations, but it's a struggle enough to get being just one right (if ever). Having to..."


No worries about that, Anthony. It doesn't work this way at all in the book. Every person has the organs for both sexes. To an extent, one can choose which role you're going to play, and of course, the role of female is often chosen, so that the person can bear children. But since partners are freely chosen, one can choose if you want to function at being girl or boy by choosing someone who prefers the opposite gender.

Of course, since everyone has been either sex at least once (it only happens for a few days once a month) everybody knows what the expectation of the other side is, and so everybody is pretty relaxed about it all. No pressure!

Unfortunately Le Guin lost a few opportunities with her choice of language and a few other matters.


Derek I don't agree with a couple of those points - but it's worth discussing in the group discussion, so I'm taking it back there.


message 43: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Good review. Do you think that LeGuin was playing with the construct of asexuality as "frigidity" in placing her androgynes on planet Winter? Or is that trivia?


message 44: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Fun thought. It might be a reason why some external genitalia, especially the male, might have retracted inside the body, thus androgynising both genders.


message 45: by Bruce (new)

Bruce That's a really good point. Along those lines and absent long-standing fur-lined accessories, I would expect the Gethenians' bodies to be short, thick, stocky, matted densely with hair, and heavily lined with fat (basically, penguin or walrus-like). Hips would be midsized (neither femininely broad nor masculinely narrow) and mammaries small or at least kept flush against the torso (ballooning outward during kemmer and otherwise receding, assuming they remained a sexual signal or became milk-bearing). Depending on fur and levels of ultraviolet exposure, cold, windy conditions could well lead to leathery, tough (if not necessarily heavily pigmented) skin.

It's weird, though. I would think geographically-specific conditions would also lend itself to social and cultural effects (in part attributable to location-specific xenobiology). It strikes me that LeGuin would be hyper-aware of this. If you have any further insights as to why she gave her world its particular climate, I'd be keen to read them.

(I'm also trying valiantly to interest my 13 y.o. daughter's book club in this classic, if nothing else as an antidote/respite from the stream of contemporary romantic dystopic YA fiction series that have been all their rage. Any wedge into more sophisticated material is therefore a good one!)


Derek Bruce wrote: "That's a really good point. Along those lines and absent long-standing fur-lined accessories, I would expect the Gethenians' bodies to be short, thick, stocky, matted densely with hair, and heavily..."

Which is all basically the case (except the dense hair). I believe everything else was mentioned.

"I would think geographically-specific conditions would also lend itself to social and cultural effects (in part attributable to location-specific xenobiology)."

You mean differences across Gethen? There is no appreciable axial tilt, and a narrow habitable zone, so I wouldn't expect huge differences. The island nations are probably different in interesting ways, but we know practically nothing about them.

Good luck with getting the offspring to read anything you'd like!


message 47: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Derek wrote: "...Good luck with getting the offspring to read anything you'd like! "

My approach has been to leave things on the shelf in the hope that one day the girls might be tempted. Unfortunately, I think the fact that they are analogue books might count against them.


Cecily I wish I'd enjoyed the book as much as I enjoyed your review!


message 49: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Cecily wrote: "I wish I'd enjoyed the book as much as I enjoyed your review!"

Thanks, Cecily. That's such a beautiful thing to say and I really appreciate it. I had no idea this novel would create such ructions.


message 50: by Cecily (last edited May 16, 2013 03:29AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Ian wrote: "...I had no idea this novel would create such ructions"

I only skimmed the ructions, as I was (fortunately) away on holiday, squinting at the screen of my phone, so only skimming the comments.


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