The Left Hand of Darkness: Where Frozen Wasteland Meets Gender Trouble

A while back I decided I wanted to see whether science fiction could be for chicks i.e. less robot, more story.

The first book I've tackled is The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969 and considered to be one of the first feminist works of science fiction.

Genly Ai is an emissary from the Ekumen, a federation of worlds, come to the isolated planet of Gethen to try to bring it into the fold.

Gethen is also called Winter, and for good reason. It's in the middle of a full-blown Ice Age and the inhabitants are restricted to a tiny strip of land wedged between ice fields. Technological innovation is limited due to the harsh weather and as so, space travel has not been yet attempted. Thus, you can imagine the level of suspicion Genly encounters.

The largest difference between Genly and the inhabitants of Winter is that the Gethenians are hermaphodites. For 24 days of their 26 day cycle they are neuters. The other two days are spent in a state of heat called 'kemmer' where they can morph into a male or female, depending on the other partner. Any person on Winter can thus become pregnant.

Further, incest is permitted between siblings but only until a child is conceived, then they must part.
Very simply, the plot follows Genly from the nation of Karhide to Orgoreyn and then on a very dangerous trek across the ice fields back. For more detail on the plot or further analysis, the Wiki page on this title is very thorough.

I absolutely loved this book. Though slow at first, the action is tight and fast-paced - I'd forgotten how lovely it is to read a literary yet plot-driven novel.

Also, author Ursula K. Le Guin forgoes overly intricate world-building or tangled narrative for a simple, straightforward story told in plain language. It works. It's almost like a poem - enough is left unsaid that you are left to dream about the nightmarish endlessness of the Ice Field or the possibilities of what a nations of neuters could do to a society.

This book may have been more eye-opening in the 1970's but Le Guin's observations of how sexuality and gender rule our personal choices and our perception of others is pertinent to a society still dictated by gender norms.

Verdict: A rioting good tale with food for thought. Close to perfect.

The Left Hand of Darkness/ Ursula K. Le Guin / Ace / new MMPB ed. 2003


Joanne said...

Great review! This sounds fascinating and is the type of sci-fi i prefer. Robots, spaceships etc. are okay but I prefer them to be background props and the characters/society to be front and center.

B.Kienapple said...

I'm on the hunt for character/plot-driven sci fi novels so you should see more reviews of that nature over the next while! The only exception I've ever encountered is Daemon (more cyberpunk than sci fi). It's filled with gadgets and gaming but really, really good.


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