‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Fiction – paperback; Gollancz; 304 pages; 2018.

First published in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic science fiction novel (and often heralded as a seminal feminist and LGBTQ text).

As regular readers of this blog will know, this is not a genre I usually read (with the exception of John Wyndham, whom I love), but it was chosen by my book group and I was intrigued enough to give it a go.

I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the ideas in it (Le Guin herself describes it as a “novel of ideas” in the introduction to this newly published edition), but I was less sure about the execution.

What’s the book about?

Before I elaborate further, let me give a brief synopsis.

Genly Ai, a human envoy, is sent to the Planet Gethen, 17 light years away, to invite them to join a political alliance of 80 other planets. He befriends statesman Estravan, who can grant him an audience with the king, but through a cultural misunderstanding this does not happen as promised. Instead, Estravan is exiled from his community, forbidden to contact anyone on pain of death. Genly must now go about his business by himself — an alien in a completely foreign society —  trying to establish contact with the political elite to further his aims.

It is this stranger in a strange land concept that makes The Left Hand of Darkness so intriguing, because all the people on Gethen, a planet besieged by an almost eternal winter, are androgynous and celibate, apart from the two or three days in every monthly sexual cycle — which is known as “kemmer” — when they become either male or female and are able to reproduce. No one has control over which gender they transform into, which gives arise to the novel’s most famous line:

The king was pregnant.

What I liked, and didn’t like

This is what I mean about a “novel of ideas”, because Le Guin has posed a really intriguing question — what would happen if we lived in a genderless society without eternal sexual tension? — and explored it in an equally intriguing way. She also plays with the concepts of patriotism and loyalty, friendships and love, but what didn’t really work for me was the structure of the novel.

Instead of focussing on a straightforward narrative, the story for roughly two-thirds of its content is a mixture of first person accounts from both Genly and Estravan interspersed with myths, legends and anthropologist reports which showcase Gethen’s sociopolitical culture and its history. It’s not until about chapter 14 (page 185 in my edition), when both protagonists embark on a daring 800 mile journey across a treacherous ice-ridden landscape, that the book takes on a compelling, page-turning quality. That’s a lot of pages to trudge through before you experience any urgency to the tale.

That said, I guess this isn’t a book that you read for a fast-paced plot. It’s a book that asks questions about the way our own society is set up, how human biological impulses have shaped our culture and the ways in which almost every facet of our lives is dominated by sex, perhaps without us even realising it.

Personally, I also liked the way it challenges our concepts of belonging and cultural identity, because it feels particularly pertinent here in the UK with all the shenanigans related to Brexit and the rise of populism across the Western World.

As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that, when I had asked him if he hated Ororeyn [a city on Gethen]; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

All in all, this is a fascinating novel, one that feels quite relevant to the times we live in when gender fluidity is such a hot topic and there’s so much discussion about equality between the sexes. And as much as I am glad I took the time to read it, I haven’t been converted into a science fiction fan and I doubt whether I’ll ever read anything by Le Guin in the future. This hasn’t surprised me; and if you are familiar with my reading tastes I doubt it will surprise you either.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K Le Guin

  1. Funnily enough, I tried reading this fairly recently and couldn’t get into it at all despite loving the idea of it too! I would love to read a little more science fiction again – it was my first bookish love – but won’t rush to try reading this one again. Well done you for getting past all the beginning stuff!

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    • Once you get to the two-thirds mark it really picks up… but that’s a lot of pages to wade through first and I’ll admit I only kept going because of book group. I read a lot of science fiction in my teens, but it’s not something I’ve done much of as an adult. I’m not sure why.

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  2. This is a book that will forever remain critical and formative to the time that I read it—when I was about eleven or twelve and it was quite a recent release. I read a fair amount of science fiction at the time and rarely found that magic of possibility again. An inarticulate gender discomfort was already present for me and years later, when I did eventually transition to male I bought a new copy of this book. And could not read more than a page. I can’t imagine I could ever go back to it (mind you I find most contemporary gender fluid or transgender themed fiction unreadable too, I’m too close to the experience). I did, however, read and enjoy Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy with my son when he was about the same age I was when I first read Le Guin.

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  3. I love, love, love Ursula Le Guin. I think I have read all her novels and I’m only sorry I didn’t follow her blog when I had the chance – her post about Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman is masterly. Le Guin as both a woman and an anarchist stood pretty well alone in mainstream science fiction. She spends a lot of time unpacking her ideas about how we might live better together, but I always found the journey worthwhile. Still, I’m glad you took the time to read this one. I think she’s one of the greats, not just of SF which is undoubted, but of Literature.

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    • To be honest, I only kept reading this book because it was a book group choice… in any other circumstances I would have abandoned it too. I think once you get past all the anecdotal / mythological / reports stuff and get into the trek across the snow it becomes much easier (and more enjoyable) to read and comprehend.

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  4. I read this such a long time ago that I just can’t remember much apart from the fact that it was fascinating and perhaps a little complex for me at the time – I was quite young and couldn’t get a handle on the non-gendered thing. Times have changed

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  5. A really thoughtful review Kim. I read another bloggers experience of this last year and they couldn’t get on with it at all, but I know it’s a much beloved book for many. I think it’s probably not for me despite being interested in the ideas it explores, because I hardly ever read SF. I do think a book of ideas is really hard to pull off!

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    • This was a nice reminder for me about why I don’t tend to read science fiction: I couldn’t get on with the “language” of it, for a start (there are lots of made up words — planets, names, behaviours etc), and I thought the prose style a little pedestrian. But… but…. as a novel of ideas it is completely intriguing and has a lot to say. I’m glad I read it even though I didn’t enjoy it terribly much.

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