Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
Going into this novel, I had many high expectations. I have read so many different books and articles where academics have cited this novel. They have commented on it, praised it, used it as a reference point. I knew I would have to read this novel sometime and so I chose now to do so when I was in a rut reading wise. Even with my high expectations, I am pleased to see how much I enjoyed it. I had no knowledge of the plot, only the different theories and issues dealt with before, so the plot was an entire surprise.
If you’re unfamiliar with the book, at the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness is a story of a friendship between two characters, Estraven, a high official in the kingdom, and Genly, the envoy from a peacekeeping alliance amongst many planets, as they try to understand each other and their cultures. They must navigate this dangerous world together, testing their limits and through this journey, truly learn about both the other person and themselves. I do not want to go into too much detail about the actual plot, because there are many nuances, so for a general overview that must suffice.
A note about the actual style of writing, each chapter is from a different perspective. I do not necessarily mean that each chapter switches character’s perspective, but each chapter offers something different; a journal entry, a creation myth. Each chapter has a source and because of this construction, it is almost read like an ethnological piece of writing; like the author has journeyed to the planet of Winter and found these records. This style of writing is very interesting (begging questions of perspective and authenticity), but also reflects the style of both Genly and Extraven’s perspective (Genly must keep diaries for the peacekeeping alliance and Estraven is in a habit of writing daily in a journal).
While the setting is most definitely science fiction, Winter has no birds or any other creatures besides its humanoid inhabitants, at the center of this book is part travelogue and part an exploration of what happens when two cultures meet; how are friendships and understanding formed. That is what kept me reading (even if I did not have an academic interest). The friendship and cultural (mis)understandings they must navigate are interesting and the way the story is presented forces the readers to see the story from a slightly ethnological point of view. Not only is the setting science fiction, so are the inhabitants of Winter because they have no outwards gender. They spend the majority of their life androgynous and so their society is not organized around gender roles. An inhabitant could be both a mother and father throughout their life. More detail and how the process of ‘kemmer’ functions are found in the book. I was aware of this aspect as it is much discussed in science fiction literary theory.
Overall what may have attracted me, ended up not sustaining my attention. The theory fell away as I became involved with the characters, their journey, and their friendship. This is a good introduction into science fiction as there is not a lot of complicated jargon (unlike a lot of novels that take place on space ships) nor is there a lot of scientific theory. Additionally, a lot of the science fiction elements blend into the background when you delve deeper into the book. I think this is one of the reasons why science fiction is so popular: it balances this feeling of unfamiliarity with aspects and characters that are familiar and alike to us. Give the book a chance, and this infamous piece of science fiction will surprise you.
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