Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book Info: Genre: Science Fiction
Reading Level: Adult
Recommended for: Anyone, especially those interested in gender roles.

Please Note: I picked up a used copy of this after reading Nataliya’s review on Goodreads. All opinions are my own.

Synopsis: Genly Ai is an emissary from the human galaxy to Winter, a lost, stray world. His mission is to bring the planet back into the fold of an evolving galactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own culture and prejudices and those that he encounters. On a planet where people are of no gender – or both – this is a broad gulf indeed. The inventiveness and delicacy with which Le Guin portrays her alien world are not only unusual and inspiring, they are fundamental to almost all decent science fiction that has been written since. In fact, reading Le Guin again may cause the eye to narrow somewhat disapprovingly at the younger generation: what new ground are they breaking that is not already explored here with greater skill and acumen? It cannot be said, however, that this is a rollicking good story. Le Guin takes a lot of time to explore her characters, the world of her creation, and the philosophical themes that arise.

My Thoughts: This book is part of a series by Le Guin called the Hainish Cycle; these books can be read interdependently of one another.

In the introduction to this book, the author says, “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future... a prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist... the outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer... somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life... Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.” Her point is that she is telling a story, not extrapolating into the future – and she tells a story very well.

Genly Ai is a fascinating character; he’s so incredibly biased, but tries to maintain a presence among the people on Winter without letting them know how he really feels; watching him grow and change through the course of the book was a wonderful experience. On the other hand, I’m also fascinated by the King of Karhide who, upon learning there were thousands of other civilizations out there, instead of considering that his people were the odd ones, rather claims that they were the only normal ones and all those thousands of civilizations were full of aberrations and perverts. It’s a fascinating study on how people consider themselves and only themselves to be the norm.

I do wish some form of gender-neutral terminology had been created for this book. Having Genly call everyone “he” even if he considers some of them feminine is distracting. However, this is not, I am fairly certain, something that was really even considered when this book was written (1969) and it was probably quite a shocking and groundbreaking idea at the time.

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything... The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing,’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women elsewhere are likely to be... burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally, everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.” A fascinating thought, and one that is dealt with in only an ancillary way throughout the course of the book, as are all other ideas being expressed by this text.

Definitely an interesting book, a great story, wonderful world-building. I’m very happy that I was introduced to this book and took the chance to grab a copy when I had a gift certificate. I think this is an important book that should be study in gender-study classes at the university level; I think it is a book most everyone should read and spend some time thinking about.

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