The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A seminal sci-fi work in which science is more often sociology and biology than physics, this gender-bending meditation on the possibility of understanding between different cultures and limitations of friendship is deservedly a genre classic. Not for fans of brisk action entertainment; approached as a 'proper novel' will reward and stimulate.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841496061

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It's hard to believe that The Left Hand of Darkness dates back to 1969: forty years on, it reads as well, or even better, then when it was originally written, and - deservedly - enjoys a classic status in the science-fiction canon, as well as being perhaps the best known sci-fi novel by Ursula LeGuin.

The Left Hand of Darkness shares the Hain Ekumen setting with other sci-fi by LeGuin, but takes place exclusively on planet Gethen (or Winter).

Genly Ai is Ekumen's Mobile, or envoy, and his mission is to bring Gethen into the community of the Ekumen, consisting of over eighty worlds, all inhabited by intelligent human beings descended from the original and ancient Hain civilisation.

Entangled in the courtly intrigue in the capital of Karhide, Genly's aims seem thwarted when his supporter at the court, Estraven, falls out of Karhide's King's grace. Genly leaves Karhide for the rival state of Orgoreyn, where he falls foul of the inter-factional struggles of the oligarchic government there. He's rescued form the Orgote penal colony by Estraven, himself exiled from Karhide but still committed to support Genly's mission. The pair, now both in danger of their lives in Orgoreyn, decide to trek back to Karhide across a vast expanse of the Gobrin ice: an epic journey taking three months and superhuman strength.

Even though the synopsis suggests rather exciting events, The Left Hand of Darkness is not a fast-moving action tale. The plot, despite its literally world-changing significance, is almost incidental to the journey: The Left Hand of Darkness is a road-trip story, as are many other of LeGuin novels. The physical trip borders on the picaresque (though the characters don't lose the sight of their goal) and affords many opportunities for exploring the alien physical, biological and social realities of Gethen.

The emotional journey of Genly Ai is more important, though, along with the development of his relationship with Estraven and his deepening understanding of Gethen and his own limitations.

The Left Hand of Darkness is mostly narrated in the first person by Genly Ai, but Genly's tale is interspersed with entries from Estraven's journal, accounts from Gethenian mythology, folk tales and scientific reports from previous Ekumene visitors.

Every writer creating an alien world or culture faces the temptation of extended exposition (aka the info dump): the construction of The Left Hand of Darkness deals with this temptation in a gracefully transparent manner. Whether the readers like it or not depends on how interested they are in the world building - and frankly, if they are not, they shouldn't be reading science-fiction - the very raison d'etre of speculative fiction being the 'what-if' exercise involved in the creation of alternative realities - within very widely understood boundaries of scientific reason.

Traditionally, the 'science' in sci-fi was physics, cosmology, technology. LeGuin's science often means psychology or sociology: she tests alternative social models rather than alternative versions of physics. In The Left Hand of Darkness, though, biology is the most important: uniquely in the known universe, the human inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites, male and female at once, and potentially capable of both bearing and siring children. Even more uniquely, they remain utterly sexually latent most of the time and only enter a period of oestrus (kemmer) for a few days every month, when they can became male or female depending on circumstances.

Thus, in day to day life, Gethenians have no sex - and thus no gender. The sexual act itself is incredibly important, the desire an almost unstoppable force, but it's separated from the rest of the life in which Gethenians are entirely desire-free.

Writing a novel populated almost entirely by androgynous characters is a linguistic as well as a creative challenge. Throughout The Left Hand of Darkness LeGuin uses the masculine personal pronoun (though she used 'she' in a separate story set on Gethen): and thus the reader finds that it's almost impossible not to think of the Gethenians as male - bisexual, but still male, capable of turning female, but still male. The Left Hand of Darkness certainly makes one realise how fundamental is sex for personal identity and it would be well worth reading even just as a magnificent exercise in gender-bending. Despite the label of a feminist novel there is nothing crude or simplistic about The Left Hand of Darkness even in this gender-bending aspect.

But it's much more than that: the snow-bound world of Gethen is beautifully realised and the encounter between Genly Ai and Estraven allows for exploration of not only gender-related subjects but societal constructs in general. The influence of biology on culture is a subject with even more resonance now than when The Left Hand of Darkness was originally written, and the questions about the possibility of transcending biological factors and spiritual ways to built understanding between different cultures are as valid as ever.

I suspect The Left Hand of Darkness is something of a read for more mature years, not just because of its slowish pace but also strong spiritual, somehow Taoist undercurrents. I wasn't particularly impressed with it when I first read it in my teens and preferred other LeGuin novels. I re-read it a few years ago and revised my opinion upwards, and when this new, handsome anniversary edition (with a special introduction by LeGuin and a bonus short story on Gethenian sexual lives) arrived in my mail, I intended to just read the new material, but smoothly fell into the novel itself - and loved it even more.

Highly recommended - and not just for fans of science-fiction.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another book which rises above the genre and has stood the test of time we can recommend The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

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