The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

I should note now, before you have any misconceptions of my reading habits, that I am not an overly large fan of science fiction; admitted, I enjoy dabbling in the genre, yet only generally in the moderner novels. So it will surprise you to hear, that a month ago, when I went to the rather unique and charming Shakespeare’s Bookshop in Paris, I bought exactly what I have been trying to avoid reading for years.

the left

The book was small, only 248 pages (but more on that later) and I thought to myself, as the popular press often tells one, that I should take a risk. So, a perfectly appropriate way to do so would be if I submerged myself in the unfamiliar waters of strange science fiction plots, planets and pulsesars , in the hope of being rewarded by enjoying the novel.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I will forever will know that The Left Hand of Darkness has 248 pages, due entirely to the fact that I was constantly flicking to the last page, hoping that the numbers had blurred and metamorphosed into a much, much, much smaller one. Yes, it turns out that my brave leap into the world of Gethen was not, as I had hoped, rewarded.

The novel is in itself is based around the fascinating concept of an entirely single sexed society; despite it being written in the late 1960s I think that in a way it is almost topical, because of the drive for more equality within gender today. Although, this book (as far as I am aware) is not written as a response to gender issues in the 20th Century, it is an unusual and under-explored idea that I was excited to read more about. Thus, I bought it.

Yet strangely enough, even though the single sexed society aspect was a clear theme in the book, it was almost pushed out of the spotlight which disappointed me. I would much have preferred it if more was written about it, because granted that although novels should not be theme-driven, I was disappointed about how LeGuin neglected to further explore this rare idea. Part of this idea was destroyed due to LeGuin having everyone addressed with the male possessive pronoun so that one automatically assumes it is a male-only society, not a neutral one as LeGuin attempted to illustrate. To add to that, I feel that it, or some other neuter pronoun would have been more suitable, so that the reader does not receive the impression of one sex being more dominant than the other in these world.

An aspect I enjoyed in the book was that there were multiple perspectives; in the first half of the book it was that of Genly Ai, whilst littered chapters were ancient stories that held a certain relevance to the rest of the novel. Then, for the second half, it was predominantly Genly Ai’s perspective (again) with several chapters from the viewpoint of Estraven. This definitely improved the reading of the novel because the two characters, whilst being physically contrasting (Genly Ai is an envoy sent from Ekumen to persuade Orgota, Karhide and the other countries on that planet, to agree to a trade agreement, whilst Estraven is a native to the planet, and therefore initially thought of Genly as an alien), they are even more so mentally and therefore it was refreshing to notice a change in style in the narrative.

Incontestably, the multiple viewpoints was a relief because of the dry content. It was so dry it was desert with only infrequent adjectives to relive the my stultified brain; thankfully those rare stylistic devices were beautiful, creating incredible imagery. Why then, could there not be more of them? Honestly, did LeGuin’s editor set her a limit? Anyway, I was frequently checking how many pages I had left (248!) and willing the whole thing to be finished. The fist part of the novel was definitely the most interesting, and at that point it wasn’t that insufferable. At times, dare I say it, I even enjoyed it, but then Ai gets rescued from that farm, and they start that trek through the snow. Until the very end, a very large proportion of the novel is merely “It’s snowy and hard to pull the sledge.” Up until that point it was going so well, so to see the death of such a strong, young plot was heart-breaking. And I had to suffer the consequences in order to be fully qualified to write this review. Needless to say, I was unbelievably satisfied to be finished with the novel.

Another reason I believe I had a lack in interest generally was because the protagonist was generally weak and was difficult to relate to (except if you suffer from the cold badly). Genly Ai, admittedly, was a stranger on the planet, but there was a gaping hole, charred around the edges perhaps, where tales of his past should have been.

The same issue is associated in my mind with Estraven. The fact he lives on an alien planet is irrelevant. He is a dull, boring character and the most exciting thing that has happened to him his whole life is being exiled, which is poor if you happened to be the prime minister. I was looking forward to some jovial anecdotes about his time in residency but, as a wise man once said, some things just aren’t meant to be. (Spoiler!) I sense that the ending should have been emotional, but when Estraven got shot down, I didn’t even feel a pang of remorse or sadness.

Obviously, I am not an original Science Fiction fan, so there may be those raving about The Left Hand of Darkness further afield, but that was my just opinion. I would recommend this if you are looking for something a bit interesting, and have a lot of time on your hands, (because if you only have several hours a week, this isn’t what I think you’d want to be spend it reading), but if you are on holiday and are open minded enough to endure a new experience, who knows? Perhaps you’ll like it much more than I did… all 248 pages.

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5 thoughts on “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin”

  1. Too bad your foray into SciFi was so disappointing. I read a lot of it to refresh my brain from the many CriFi books I read. Should you decide to chance it again I have some recommendations for you…although they are likely longer than 248 pages 🙂
    ~ June Lorraine

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