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The Left Hand of Darkness

Posted on the 15 November 2018 by Cheekymeeky

T he Left Hand of Darkness is reckoned by many to be a science-fiction classic. Naturally, it's been on my TBR list for a very long time, only getting put on the backburner as soon as the next shiny new sci-fi read came on the horizon.
When Le Guin passed away earlier this year, I was prompted to just finish this book (at least to understand to myself what the fuss is all about).

Why The Left Hand of Darkness interested me

This book is path-breaking not for the sci-fi aspect, but because of its ideas on gender and sexuality. The book is based in a planet called Gethen. In this planet, there is no gender. It's rather complicated to explain, but the people of Gethen are androgynous. In Le Guin's own words in an interview, she

eliminated gender, to find out what was left


This idea intrigued me enough to explore how she thought a society without gender roles would look like.

Plus, I had read and loved The Handmaid's Tale - a dystopian fiction with a strong feminist slant, and so I thought I would like The Left Hand of Darkness as well.

About the Book
The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of how the Terran Genly Ai comes to the planet Gethen to persuade Gethen to enter the Ekumen, the community of worlds (kind of like a present-day United Nations). His goal is to facilitate Gethen's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

My Review

This is the sixth book in the Hainish Cycle series. However, this can easily be read as a standalone novel.

The first rather dramatic sentence of the book is a little deceiving:

So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, and did not know it.

This line prompted me to think the book is going to start with a bang. But no! This is not that kind of a book at all. It deals mostly with ideas rather than plot. The first two-thirds of the book is world-building with Genly traveling through the countries on the planet. The planet and its people are introduced to us through his viewpoint (for the most part). So, as a reader, I also absorbed his discomfiture getting used to such an alien culture and climate.

The second half of the book becomes more plot-heavy. However, most of the important events happen in the background. There is a lot of political maneuvering but since Genly doesn't understand it, for the most part neither do we. It's only in the portions of the book narrated by his friend Estraven, that we learn what is going on.

I freely admit I still don't understand the need for all this cloak and dagger politics. And this is where the book faltered a little. A fictional book solely based on ideas would be hard to sell (and harder to read). So, there is this plot where Genly is in danger and Estraven has to rescue him. A little melodrama is tagged on to the ending, which is completely at odds to the dry, detached tone of the rest of the book. The ending is also too pat and easy; it doesn't ring true to the rest of the book.

That said, this book probably broached the idea that a person could be male and female and have characteristics of both genders. It was brave enough to look at society stripped apart of gender. To Genly, such a society is unthinkable. It was probably unheard of too in 1969.

A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. Here one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

Now, in 2018, this book feels really dated. But isn't that the mark of a great science-fiction novel? That it could point us towards a different type of world, and that almost 50 years later, we are moving towards a more unisex society where gender differences are starting to blur? At least, I think and hope that's the kind of society we are moving towards.

Have you read The Left Hand of Darkness? What did you think of this book?

You can buy a copy of this book from Amazon.

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