Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Science Fiction – Hainish Cycle #4 (but a perfect standalone read)

“I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.”

I thought that instead of writing a review here, I might just say “Ursula K. Le Guin is the best,” followed by a hundred exclamation marks. It’s still pretty tempting but I am going to try to put some of my excitement into actual logical sentences.

Your two-sentence plot synopsis: Genly Ai travels to icy Gethen, a planet whose inhabitants are neither male nor female, to try and obtain their membership in an intergalactic political collective. With his mission in danger of failing, Ai is forced to rely on his only Gethenian ally, Estraven, to guide him through the dangers of both Gethen’s politics and its brutal, unending winter.

This book brought up a lot of questions for me, such as: Ursula K. Le Guin where have you been all my life, and how is it possible that I thought I was reasonably knowledgeable on SFF canon when in fact I hadn’t read this Best Book Ever.

Growing up “classic” science fiction, books were a sea of straight white people and dated gender stereotypes, and I assumed that was just something I had to accept.  Discovering UKL was one of the first times I found science fiction like this – that is, exceptional, beautifully crafted stories that challenge gender norms and heteronormativity and default whiteness – was being written and winning awards two decades before I was even born.

The powerful beauty and danger of Gethen probably strikes a chord with anyone who has experienced a long, cold winter. I grew up in the Canadian prairies, and I love winter: I love seeing frozen rivers and waterfalls, sun dogs over a field on a bright, bitterly cold day, and the aurora borealis on a clear night. I also hate winter: I have lost my keys and found myself locked out at -50C, and gotten frostbite in under 10 minutes while waiting for a bus.  This is a book about alienation; the awe, wonder, and isolation of being at the mercy of your environment, and of being the only human on an alien planet.

Like many others, including UKL herself, I wish there had been an effort to use gender neutral pronouns for the Gethenians, or perhaps that male and female pronouns were used more interchangeably. With “he” being the main pronoun, Estraven’s sibling being a ‘brother,’ and the leader of Karhide being a King, I had to work to imagine the Gethenians as androgynous. But I do understand that when Genly Ai is narrating, this is because of his insistence on gendering a genderless people. He accepts male as the ‘default gender’, and when he sees what he perceives as femaleness among the Gethenians it disturbs or confuses him (such as the pregnant King early). He struggles with how to think of Estraven, wanting to classify him as one gender and devaluing what he sees as Estraven’s ‘feminine’ traits. Le Guin uses his thinking to show how utterly ingrained the gender binary is in the way humans frame and interpret the world around them—and, subsequently, why so many struggle with persons who challenge/cross/upset that rigid binary.

(Le Guin discusses this in an afterword written in the 1994, acknowledging the power of gendered pronouns and the difficulties presented by them in The Left Hand of Darkness.)

There are spaceships and alien politics and other science fiction elements, but mostly The Left Hand of Darkness is a survival story about two people, navigating cultural differences, and learning to communicate and understand each other. I am so often complaining about romances in books—well here is a book that I believe is a romance at its heart, and I love it so, so dearly.

If you like ______, you might want to pick up The Left Hand of Darkness:

  • beautiful writing
  • deconstruction of societal ideas about gender and heterosexuality
  • survival/exploration stories
  • thought experiments
  • excellent world and culture building

You might want to pass on The Left Hand of Darkness if:

  • you are looking for action, explosions, shooting, alien tentacles, etc.

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