Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Ace
Genre: Space Opera
Series: Hainish Cycle Book Four
Pages: 301

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The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those science fiction books that helped elevate the genre. That’s not to say that this is the first literary science fiction book; science fiction books of literary quality had been written before (Brave New World and 1984 for example). Left Hand of Darkness did tread through some new ground though, and combined with some skilled prose and thoughtful philosophies, Ursula K. Le Guin created a classic for its time.

Recommended to fans of literary fiction and science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness will reward readers that enjoy a more thoughtful book that explores the roles of gender, communication, and love.

Genly Ai is a Terran (human) representative of the Ekumen Trade Federation.  The Federation represents groups of humanoids from various galaxies that trade information with one another.  He is initially sent to the kingdom of Karhide on the planet of Gethen to visit with the king.  The androgynous residents of Gethen, along with their cultural differences make it difficult for Ai to persuade the various groups on the planet to join with the Ekumen’s.

Worldbuilding is the heart and soul of The Left Hand of Darkness, and it opens up the exploration of gender, which is the focal point. By creating a society of androgynous humans, Le Guin has, for all intents and purposes, forced readers to examine a society without gender roles.  The Gethens have never known war, although it’s implied this may also be due to the fact that they live on a cold Winter planet that makes warfare impractical.  Gethens exhibit both feminine and masculine characteristics but neither one of them is considered more dominant.  All Gethens potentially have the opportunity to bare children.

A lot of the story is told through the perspective of Ai in first person. Ai is a play on words for “I” or even “eye.” Early on in the book Le Guin states that the story is not told by him alone.  While readers are told Ai is male, it’s very possible that multiple different perspectives were used to shape the story, thus potentially eliminating any gender bias at all.  Another significant portion of the book is narrated by Estraven, a Gethen politician. Here readers get to see the world from the perspective of someone who inhabits both female and male characteristics. The potential to read a character without gender bias not only allows for the cultivation of a unique character, but a unique reading experience as well.

The first person perspectives can get confusing at times.  Le Guin switches narration between Ai and Estraven, and only the context clues the reader into who’s actually narrating each chapter. As the plot follows Ai and his attempts to bring Karhide, and later on Orgoreyn, into the Eukemen Trade Federation, readers get to see the odd reactions of the Gethens.  Ai is meant to be the fish out of water, so readers will be just as lost as he is when he gets strange reactions from the inhabitants of the Gethen world. Estraven’s narration, which doesn’t appear until mostly later, largely explains the Gethen worldview. By the end of the book, these characters along with the reader should have a deeper understanding for one another.

Scattered in between the plot are short mythical stories about the Gethen world, or stories about characters from Gethen.  Some of these tie into the major plot, while others help establish the cultural values of the Gethens.  These interludes help break apart the story and are a welcome and non-distracting diversion.

There is a not a lot of action, nor is there a lot of political intrigue – although it’s a prominent secondary plot. Above all this a philosophical exploration of love, gender, and cultural differences with cultural differences being the aspect that is used to show love and gender are not mutual.  Le Guin takes a real modern look at love, one that suggests it’s about recognizing the humanity in others rather than just feeling mutually attracted to another person. It’s this aspect of the story I enjoyed the most, and it’s what will always leave me emotionally attached to The Left Hand of Darkness.

Score: 9.5

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