The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

I have heard a lot about Ursula Le Guin since I began book blogging, but I have never sat down and actually read anything of hers, so when I randomly saw this in the bookstore, I couldn’t resist. Unlike most books I buy, this one didn’t end up sitting on the shelf indefinitely, instead I picked it up to read it almost immediately. I used to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and I was craving being completely transported into a different world. The Left Hand of Darkness did that for me, to a point, but never quite completely.

Genly Ai is an envoy for the Ekumen, a collective of 83 planets that is on a mission to join all of the known planets in the universe together in the League of All Worlds. His mission is to get the planet Winter, known as Gethen in the planet’s native language. Gethen is a unique planet for two reasons: 1) it is currently in the grips of an ice age and 2) there are no sexes on Gethen. Gethenians remain in an adrogynous state until they go into kemmer and then one person takes on either the male or female sex.

Needless to say, there is a lot of world building going on here and Le Guin does not make it easy. On the one hand, I am glad that she didn’t. I would rather work hard than have it too easy, but there were times when I definitely needed a little more help. The narratives were often confusing and purposefully vague. Eventually most of the confusion was cleared up, but it did make for frustrated reading sometimes.

Gender and sex were obviously a big part of this book. I loved the way that Le Guin described the citizens of Gethen who were simultaneously male and female and neither. As difficult as it was for Genly Ai (and I’m sure the reader) to understand the Gethenian society, so was it difficult for the Gethenians to understand a bisexual society. Since there were no distinctions of gender, often is was difficult, because of the language restraints of English, to really refer to the Gethenians as anything but him or he. Unfortunately that made you think of a planet of men that were sometimes women. While the narration explicitly addressed this issue (since Genly Ai is a man he sometimes had difficulty thinking of it as any other way), I wonder how it would have been if this had been narrated by a woman or narrated in the third person.

All in all, The Left Hand of Darkness was very thought-provoking, but it didn’t always keep my attention and sometimes kept me confused. The last few chapters really make this book worth reading. This is a classic science fiction novel and one that people will be reading and discussing for years. It’s so hard to believe that this was written over 40 years ago. It’s still very relevant today and will continue to be for a long time.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else

Neth Space, Grasping for the Wind, Only the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Trish’s Reading Nook, Bookshelves of Doom, The Biblio Blogazine, A Librarian’s Life in Books, and things mean a lot all have posts about The Left Hand of Darkness. Do you? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.


8 thoughts on “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

  1. I agree with you — this was interesting but difficult. I actually have trouble with a lot of Le Guin’s books — somehow they seem sort of… technical to me. I haven’t become a huge fan yet although I keep trying… A Wizard of Earthsea sort of left me cold, too.

  2. I tried reading this book years ago but couldn’t get passed the first few pages. I think I’ll give it a try when I have some free time.

  3. I haven’t read any Le Guin but like you I’ve heard a lot about her recently (for good reason) and feel like I need to get acquainted with her. I don’t read tons of SF so I’m not sure this would be the best place for me to start as I’m sure I would have been more lost than you were!

  4. I’m going to just come right out and admit this…the first time I heard of Ursula Le Guin was from the movie The Jane Austen Club. Yes, I know, I know…! I do need to give one of her books a try because ever since then, it seems like I hear her name all the time! Sounds like a pretty interesting premise as well, so might be a good one for a change of pace for me.

  5. The subject of this book really interests me so I think I will end up reading it. I’ve only read Ursula Le Guin’s nature writing before, which probably seems strange.

  6. The part at the end where the two characters cross the Gobrin ice is my favorite part of the novel. I come from a place with cold winters and there’s something compelling about Estraven’s view that with luck they’ll make it, and without it, they won’t. I have an audio book of the novel. It’s abridged and I don’t normally touch anything abridged, but I bought it because Le Guin reads the novel herself. And she does it beautifully in her deep, calm voice.

  7. I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for way too long. Eeeep–sorry about that. I read this a few years ago and didn’t like it. I think a lot of had to do with it not keeping my attention and like you said having a tough time following or leaving me confused. I’ve put it in the “maybe one day I’ll try again” pile.

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