Emily May'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: sci-fi, classics, 2018
Recommended to Emily May by: Tatiana

“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.”

I can't say why it's taken me so many years to finally get to The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps because every time I passed it in a bookstore or library it looked like a typical dated 1960s sci-fi novel. But it is so much more than that.

This book is quite astonishing. Hannah Gadsby has made me reluctant to say "ahead of its time" but if any book is ahead of its time then this one is. It's a fascinating read, complete with rich world-building, detailed descriptions of the Gethenian customs, an exploration of an ambisexual society, and an examination of how political and cultural norms can force a wedge between societies.
“No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.”

This alone is extremely interesting, but it wasn't until I'd sat wide-eyed through many chapters of the book until I realized that somewhere along the way Le Guin had snuck in and stolen my heart, too. Perhaps ultimately I had put off this book because I had expected "interesting" but not "moving". Not "emotional". And definitely not "heartbreaking".

The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely a tough read at times, especially in the beginning when Le Guin throws in Gethenian terms without explanation and leaves us to work out what they're referring to. But you do work it out eventually, and even at its most challenging it is not unenjoyable. The world is so rich in detail that it becomes an adventure to explore it, and the nuanced character dynamics keep the pages turning.

The story is about Genly Ai, a male human envoy, who is sent to Gethen to persuade the Gethenians to join the Ekumen union. He believes they can both benefit from the trade and exchanging of technology this would lead to. He first appeals to the Karhide king - who refuses - and then later to the Orgoreyn politicians. Alongside this mission is the story of Gethen's developing relationship with Estraven - a disgraced former prime minister.

I can usually quite neatly separate books into those driven by characters and those driven by plot, but it is not so easy here. The plot is definitely dynamic and a lot happens over the course of 330 pages, but I do think the book's strength lies in how Le Guin explores character interactions. The Gethenians are genderless and essentially sexless (or, perhaps more accurately, they are intersex- as they can take on either sex during mating season) but Genly finds it hard not to force the Gethenians into the gender binary. He constantly examines their behaviour for traditionally masculine and feminine traits, which affects how he views and treats them.

It is a fabulous exploration of fluid gender and sexuality. And race, too. I've got to be honest-- this being a 1960s American novel, and a science-fiction novel at that (a still depressingly white genre), I was expecting to experience the usual pearly whiteness of the characters, with a jarring absence of people of colour. On the contrary, Genly is black, and the Gethenians are described as having a whole range of skin colours.

If you've been on the fence about this book like I was, I highly recommend it. It's a thought-provoking, highly-original story that is as relevant today as it ever was. And between the political and social commentary, in the icy landscape of Gethen, there is an unmistakably human story of loyalty, tragedy and love.

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Reading Progress

August 7, 2013 – Shelved
October 10, 2018 – Started Reading
October 11, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Vero I loved so much this book, and the descriptions of the landscapes are incredibly vivid

message 2: by Tanya (new) - added it

Tanya I haven't read this one yet although it's on my tbr, but I can highly recommend Le Guin's The Dispossessed as well!

message 3: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin I've had books 1-4 for six months and haven't really thought much of them. Will definitely be reading next!!

Franziska I read rhis with 16 and it is one of my favourite books since.

message 5: by Sydney (new) - added it

Sydney My son has been recommending this book to me for years, and I always say I will get around to it ... I should just start it!

message 6: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura Le Guin will surprised you, I agree. Amazing book.

Michael If you liked this book, I highly recomend you the dispossessed from LeGuin. For me two of the best books I have found in the sf genre. Both ahead of its time.

message 8: by John (new) - added it

John Daly Good thing it wasn't depressingly white, horrid thing whiteness.

Emily May John wrote: "Good thing it wasn't depressingly white, horrid thing whiteness."

There is something especially horrible about having no non-white people in a fantasy setting. The author created this whole new world and they couldn't imagine any people of color there?

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