The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I’d read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin’s worldbuilding and there’s a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn’t become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I’d like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it’s just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven’s eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin’s worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can’t make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it’s a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

4 thoughts on “The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

  1. It’s a serious mistake to judge any older book by today’s standards. I doubt that Le Guin’s character would be any less judgmental if she was writing him today, because his judgments came out of his own society, just as Winter’s people judged *him* by their standards. His judgments and attitudes were perfectly reliable if you remember that they’re from someone coming from a quite different world. Just because Estraven provides us with a different POV, that doesn’t make Genly Ai’s POV unreliable. If that were so, every character that expresses their opinions, if different from others’ opinions, would be judged unreliable. That would include just about every novel ever written. Maybe the fact that the first part of the book was hard going for you is why you make judgments of your own that seem to come out of a lack of understanding.

    1. It’s also a serious mistake to assume offensive views in a novel from a past decade are a product of the time it was written. Lovecraft, for example, was considerably more racist than his peers, and yet the fact racism was open and endemic at that time is often used to excuse his offensive views. It’s been a number of years since I last read The Left Hand of Darkness, but from what I remember it would be dishonest not to comment on something a book fails to do – from whatever perspective.

  2. I have read one book by Ursula LeGuin, and was impressed, so your review has convinced me to make The Left Hand of Darkness a future read.

    If you enjoy detailed world-building, I would highly recommend works by C.J. Cherryh, especially Downbelow Station, Cuckoo’s Egg, and possibly Cyteen (which is a chunkster, but a very good read). The Faded Sun trilogy is also excellent, and the Chanur series is a favorite for me: I have re-read it numerous times.

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