Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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


How does one review a true masterpiece? Clearly when reading and reviewing a series of books that calls itself ‘Masterworks’, this is in an important question. Ask someone who knows what they are talking about to name the 10 best classic science fiction works. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is a good candidate for that list (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). Ask someone to name the 10 best classic science fiction works by a woman author and The Left Hand of Darkness is probably number one.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a true classic of science fiction and an important piece of literature. Classes are taught about this book, a simple Google search will reveal hundreds of articles of true criticism of the book, essays that discuss its place in history, study guides, book discussion outlines, etc. Where does this leave me – should I attempt to say what other people, people who know way more than I do, have already said? Should this review become a simple book report? I say no – do the Google search. You will find great, interesting and important information about The Left Hand of Darkness and Ursula K. Le Guin. What I will discuss is its relevance today, over 40 years after it was replaced. I will discuss why the young(er) fan of SFF books should read this classic that was published before they were born.


On its surface, The Left Hand of Darkness is a first contact book. The Ekumen, a seemingly utopic alliance of planets all populated by human species that have evolved or been engineered from an earlier civilization, sends a single envoy to the planet known as Winter. The story is told from multiple points of view in a journal style as the Envoy negotiates with two different nations and eventually sets out on a defining journey with one of the natives.

The key element of The Left Hand of Darkness is that the humans of the planet Winter are asexual – or perhaps more correctly hermaphrodites – both male and female. They only enter breeding cycle one a month, where one of the two partners becomes the female equivalent and one the male equivalent – and who plays what role can vary from cycle to cycle. The key is that there are no genders among the people. Le Guin explores what a society without gender roles would be like through and apart from the perspective of the Envoy, who is male and from a gendered society and species. There is no war on Winter, but there is violence, death, murder, etc. The politics can be just a Machiavellian, but they are different, foreign to the Envoy in a very fundamental way.

Le Guin’s exploration of a genderless society while writing in the late 1960s is an excellent piece of feminist literature. However, these explorations are subtle and not didactic. While it’s often argued that The Left Hand of Darkness is not Le Guin’s most lyrical writing, this subtle style is distinct and left me with the feeling of ‘they don’t write ‘em like they used to’ – and this is a good thing. There is a strange duality where the Envoy comes from the more utopic society, yet the genderless society of Winter has its own sense of utopia. The sense of it all is hope – hope for the future. Wrapped up in this is the equally interesting presentation of a Cold War between two nations on the planet of Winter, a Cold War on a planet where true war is unknown. Themes run deeper than feminism, hope, and the balance of superpowers and I encourage you to follow that link above to learn more.

The story itself is quite worthwhile even without the thematic prowess. By today’s standards, it’s short and to the point. Le Guin creates an exotic world in the planet Winter that is equally familiar and alien to our senses, like the people who inhabit it. The interplay of trust and perception with politics and an epic adventure across glacial wasteland makes for powerful moments.

So, does The Left Hand of Darkness stand up 40+ years later – emphatically, YES! This novel has a timeless feel about it and a wonderful subtly wrapped in important thoughts that are inherent to our society and species. We will always be a gendered society, but just what do these gender roles mean? And the dichotomies within can apply where they weren’t necessarily aimed – the Cold War of the planet Winter now reads much more like an interesting take on the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the US – and I’m sure that those from other places will find their own modern analogs if they wish. This book earns its write to be at or near the top of any ‘best of’ list and easily belongs in a series of Masterworks. 8.5/10

Note: This review was originally posted at The SF & Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.

3 comments:

Ted Cross said...

Funny, I just stuck that one on my 'to read soon' pile last week. I've always loved her Earthsea series, but I have put off for too long all of her sci-fi books.

Stevie said...

This is a great book. I also really like The Dispossessed. I find it interesting that there's a lot of "true criticism" about this excellent novel but it's so rare in sci-fi generally. There are many other wonderful, thought provoking books out there in this under-rated genre.

Neth said...

@Stevie,

If you dig you can find a lot of true criticism of SFF books - particularly the classics. But you do have to dig. A good place to start is The NY Review of Science Fiction.

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