11 June, 2009

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

    The Left Hand of Darkness (1968), by Ursula K. LeGuin won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and is widely considered to be one of the 'great' works of science fiction. Original, provocative, and ultimately captivating, this is definitely a must read.

The Setup

    Meet Genly Ai, friendly alien representative of the galactic federation of worlds, sent to offer the planet Gethen a cozy little membership plan; unfortunately, the different rulers of the planet don't quite see it that way. As with most great works of fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness operates on a number of different levels. The sociopolitical fabric of LeGuin's world is both complex and imaginative, threading in themes such as gender perception, duty, and truth.
    As a thought experiment Le Guin's work is a remarkable achievement that successfully envisions the long term effects of a predominantly asexual and genderless society on cultural development. Principally of interest is the fact that inhabitants can either be the male or female during their monthly 'arousal phase'. Part anthropological exploration, part real politik, with a little adventure thrown in to stick it all together, The Left Hand of Darkness is a deeply intellectual work whose very purpose is to push the bounds of imagination.

My Take in Brief

    The first thing I need to throw out there is that I consider this book to be a subtle manifesto on the perception and role of women in society. Remembers that it is Mrs. LeGuin, and not Mr. LeGuin, let me give you line that stuck with me:

They tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate--not in the sense of delicacy, ect., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge. I had for the first time on Winter a certain feeling of being a man among women, or among eunuchs.

It is pretty bold, in my opinion, to characterize the feminine as such, and generally exemplary of LeGuin's quietly implicit treatment of gender perception in society. While the book deals much more blatantly and resolutely with ideas such as communism, mysticism, and patriotism, gender remains the ever present and ever important connecting element. While overt analysis of the subject is generally avoided, LeGuin lets slip (in the voice of Ai) that the planet Genthen has never know war because it lacks a clear male female sexual dichotomy and the consequent social dynamics. Regardless, every line was provocative food for thought as it required LeGuin to not only build a totally unique world, but narrate from the perspective of an alien from a different world, with radically different social dynamics, values, and beliefs. It takes a true master to make that work, and work it did.
    That said, classic or not, this was not my cup of tea. Intellectually, I understand how this is ranked among some of the greatest science fiction novels, but on a personal level it just didn't work. While the prose generally flows clean and sweet, I sometimes found it to be heavy handed and halting. It is difficult to weave a heavily anthropological narrative and still keep me interested on a level that isn't purely intellectual, and in that sense I did not enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness. Nonetheless, I still think that it is worth reading, and I am glad that I did so. If anything, it hammered home how subjective our understanding of the world is, and how the questions we most want answered are those we should never be given the answers to.

Ratings and Links

Amazon: 4/5
B&N: 3.8/5
My Rating: 3.2/5

A very candid interview with Le Guin at the LA Times that explains a lot about the book (wish I had read it before I wrote my review).
Ursula K. Le Guin's Home Page, failing me finding her blog. Does she have one?!

Piqued Your Interest?

The Left Hand of Darkness aches to be read, it deserves to be read, it demands to be read. Read it, because failing to do so will make it seem like the only reason you read science fiction is for the scripted action sequences.


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ediFanoB said...

After your review I'm sure that this book won't work for me either.

I searched for her blog. I found Ursula K Le Guin blog at GOODREADS. But this is just a kind of blog and the posts referr to entries on her webpage.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Thanks for commenting on my review of this novel. You're right, I was being a bot dramatic, but then again I wrote that review 3 years ago and was still finding my voice. I don't often review like that anymore.

Good review by the way.

bloggeratf said...

Yea, the Goodreads stuffs is just a feed of her blog looks like to me, which is a little cumbersome to navigate after being so used to reading great blogs all the time.

GftW, its cool to be dramatic every now and then, it keeps things interesting. That said, I do like the style of you recent stuff a bit more :P

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ediFanoB said...

J. Kaye, thank you for information. Just added your blog to my google reader.