The 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.