Novel Review - The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Leguin, 1969, 300pp
TLDR: 4 out of 5 for a well-crafted social SF novel, though not her top work, or even top SF work.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a science-fiction classic. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and since it's publication has more than once been listed among the top three SF novels of all time.
I read this with my wife back in February during our holidays. There was a lot of media buzz about Ursula K. Leguin following her death in January, and that's what got my wife interested. Me, I was interested a long time ago, so it was a good opportunity to pick it up and read it. Plus, I was fresh off of reading A Wizard of Earthsea with the book club (it was our January 2018 pick), which renewed my sense of awe for what this author is capable of.
In retrospect, The Left Hand of Darkness may not have been the best book for introducing my wife to LeGuin. It hit's you hard and fast with foreign names and concepts and is somewhat unrelenting in the early part of the book. It really wants a glossary, but doesn't have one. Eventually, though, you get used to this, and kudos to my wife for sticking with it, even though she generally dislikes that kind of thing. She's not really a fan of fantasy or SF, though she doesn't mind the odd mystical element. The writing is also much denser and not nearly as poetic as it is in A Wizard of Earthsea, which disappointed me a little because I wanted to expose my wife to the style LeGuin used in that book.
The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of Genly Ai, a man from earth and the representative of The Ekumen (a kind of galactic federation). He has volunteered to come to the planet of Gethen, a wintery world colonized by humans so long ago that is has lost all perspective on its past. For the Gethens, Genly is basically a star man, an alien, come to a world that largely thinks aliens are a myth. It's the classic benevolent-alien-comes-to-earth-and-faces-rejection story turned on it's head - here the alien is from earth, and it's from his perspective that we see alien contact.
Genly Ai is hosted by a local person named Estraven (I say person because the people of Gethen are androgyous and can be either sex when they are aroused, but most of the time are neither sex). At the beginning of the novel, both Estraven and Genly fall victim to politics, and they are forced to leave the nation where they currently reside to live in another. Ultimately, Genly's reception is not better in the second nation, and Estraven sacrifices his personal safety in an effort to rescue Genly from imprisonment. Their relationship deepens during a desperate and daring escape across an ice-shelf, and a terrible price is extracted before the novel finally concludes.
This novel is often touted as feminist science fiction, and much is made of the androgyny of the Gethens being a major theme. My wife and I found both of these claims to be highly exaggerated, though. The androgyny is an interesting background element, but not really a major theme of the story. And for all its reputation as a feminist book, all the characters are very man-like; they think, speak, and behave like men. My wife was not terribly impressed by the novel's feminist qualities and I would agree that too much is made of this.
It's themes and strengths, in my opinion, are actually in the nature of friendship, and of sacrifice to friendship and to community. Tolerance is also a major theme, and in particular the tolerance and acceptance of different cultures and social practices. The story builds slowly, but concludes powerfully and leaves you thinking about yourself, your friends, and how you treat others, which is a running theme in LeGuin's work. And the world-building is superb - the descriptions of the setting and cultures are wonderful. These are the reasons you should read this book.
Recommended to fans of Science Fiction, and Social Science Fiction in particular. 4 out of 5.