BOOK REVIEW: THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
POSTED 9:47pm | 16 DECEMBER 2013
One of Ursula K. Le Guin's earliest novels, The Left Hand of Darkness concerns a human missionary sent to the planet of Winter, an Earth-like planet in the midst of a long-lasting ice age, whose human inhabitants are an evolutionary curiosity in that they are androgynous and hermaphroditic. Mr Genly Ai, an Envoy of the Ekumen (a loose association of human worlds) is there to prepare them for potential membership in the Ekumen, but first he must navigate his way through the politics of this foreign society full of constant lies and betrayal and challenging concepts of gender and sexuality.
In the country of Karhide, under the rule of the paranoid King Agraven XV, Genly must be careful who he believes, especially its powerful Prime Minister Estraven, who on the surface appears to be the Envoy's closest ally, but whom Genly cannot bring himself to fully trust. But when another faction wins the ear of the King and Estraven is banished as a traitor, Genly is forced to flee across the border to the bureaucratic nation of Orgoreyn and restart his mission in yet another complex political environment.
This is the first of Le Guin I've ever read, and it's the novel she won both a Hugo and Nebula prize for, but I think reading it over 40 years out of context probably does it a disservice. A lot of the praise surrounding it centres on it being a work of "feminist science fiction" at the height of the feminist movement, but a lot of the concepts in the novel most likely controversial or revolutionary at the time are tough to spot for someone who lives in a post Star Wars/Sex and the City/Queer as Folk age. In fact, one of my biggest problems with the novel is that all these interesting concepts are not explored in any great detail.
The inhabitants of Winter, or Gethenians (Gethen is the name of the planet in their own tongue), are sexless and genderless for all but two days a month, when they enter a stage of fertility known as "kemmer" where they assume the physical sexual form of male or female and search for a partner to have sex with. This is an interesting idea worth exploring - how a society develops differently without permanent gender - but the novel never really digs into it save for a vague mention of it possibly being the reason why there is no large scale war on Gethen (the other reason postulated is that the whole planet is in a perpetual state of harsh winter, making warfare impractical or pointless). Generally Gethenian society resembles that of most human societies with little real variance save for the way relationships are developed and sustained on the surface.
Vagueness, or lack of detail, seems to be a big problem with the way the novel is written, and I think most of it was unintentional. The descriptions of people and places and customs and environment lack enough detail to give the reader even the broadest sense of what things are meant to look like. I found it frustrating to be told a story that insists the visuals are striking but does not accurately paint a picture in my mind. I understand books are about the reader's imagination, but the basic framework still needs to be given. I couldn’t help but feel like there was a gigantic gulf between what the author wanted me to see and what I was actually seeing.
It's not just in the visuals either. I found it hard to get a grasp on what was going on, where I was, and who was who, even though it was all explicitly written out for me. Again, this is not the author deliberately throwing the reader in the deep end and letting them sink or swim, but rather a problem with the way the characters and story are presented to the reader. I was no clearer halfway through than I was at the very beginning.
It's not until the final third that the novel finds its feet and really starts to come together, when Le Guin gives us time to actually meet the central characters and come to understand them a little better. I would say that the final third makes the opening two worth it, but I can't help but think that an opportunity is missed here. Had the first two thirds been clearer and more developed and detailed it would have made the final third a lot stronger than what it is. Instead of feeling like payoff for slogging through pages of lengthy exposition, it feels like relief that the "good bit" has finally begun.
So I guess the main criticism I have is that the novel is a disappointment. There are wasted moments, a lack of economy in the writing, and very under-developed settings and characters that hurt the great ideas lying amongst the pages. But as I said at the start, I put a lot of this down to it being one of her earliest novels and the fact that I read it 40 years out of context. I still enjoyed it to an extent, and the final third is worth the early struggle and incoherence, but I would only recommend it to Le Guin fans or those committed to reading science fiction in an historical context.
Book shelf: If there is room