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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (thoughts)

February 27, 2012

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin has been on my vague mental ‘I should really read that’ list for years. I finally picked it up thanks to the Gender in Fantasy and Sci-Fi Challenge. So for a long time, I’ve had this vague idea of what the book would be like: it was about a planet where people could pick their gender and it was really good, a classic. Unfortunately, expectations, even hazy ones, can really get in the way of a reading experience.

First of all, the humans can’t actually choose their gender; during most of the time they’re ‘neutral,’ and then when they essentially come into heat, one of the pair changes into a gender first and the other one follows suit. There’s no overt, conscious control over the process. Far more disappointingly, from my perspective as a twenty-first century feminist, all of the people on the planet are referred to with male pronouns. At first, I thought this was le Guin cleverly showing that the narrator (who’s from another planet which contains traditionally gendered humans) can’t break out of his binary thought process. But even when the point of view shifts to a ‘native,’ the pronouns stay resoundingly male. For me, the effect was to create not so much a gender-free world as a woman-free world. And seriously, sci-fi and fantasy writers have a ton of latitude when it comes to making things up; le Guin could have just created a new pronoun, one that in the native’s language doesn’t convey gender, to use with the appropriate narrator. Disappointment number one.

And then there was the story itself. Now, I enjoy pastiche-style novels, wherein the writing is made of different ‘sources,’ styles, etc. And having been a fantasy reader since youth, I have a high tolerance for that ‘new world curve,’ wherein I have no idea what’s going on for the first few chapters while the author describes this completely new culture. I’m patient, and I know I’ll get my bearings eventually. But I found the majority of the first two-thirds of this to be so dull. There were short, wonderful native folk tales interspersed within the other chapters, which were the only things that really convinced me I had to keep reading (that, and some Twitter encouragement!). I didn’t care about any of the characters, I was disappointed by the Cold War-esque society presented, and even the intriguing effects of an Ice Age on civilisation and culture couldn’t overcome those flaws. Disappointment number two.

Finally, the last one hundred pages got much better and made me glad I hadn’t abandoned the book. That being said, I don’t think they were good enough to be a ‘pay-off’ for getting through the first two hundred; for me at least, I’d already checked out and le Guin couldn’t quite convince me to really invest in the characters and what was happening to them. The ‘climax’ just made me roll my eyes, to be perfectly honest.

All of that being said, I’m still glad that I read this. If I put it in its time period (1969), I’m less frustrated by the half-assed gender stuff. And it’s always nice to get better acquainted with foundation texts. But I’m certainly not rushing out to stockpile le Guin’s other books (I’ve also read Wizard of Earthsea, which I was similarly lukewarm about, and Orsinian Tales, which I enjoyed more but didn’t love). I’m open to recommendations from fans though!

32 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 6:29 am

    My reaction was similar to yours, but I read The Left Hand of Darkness decades ago. I’ve been meaning to reread it and give it another chance because it has such a tremendous reputation. Your review isn’t encouraging though. I wonder if the book is famous merely for the idea of a society where its members change genders. That’s a good gimmick, but was it really used to its full extent? It’s like that joke, “If men got pregnant there would be no question abortion would be legal.” Does the story let us men see what being a woman would be like?

  2. February 27, 2012 6:50 am

    I understand your comments, but I did love this book. It was frustrating that LeGuin couldn’t handle the pronouns better, but I enjoyed the concept of a gender-free society. Somehow the tie-in with the ice and the coldness worked with that in my subconscious so that it all seemed very appropriate. The opening was disorienting, but the book got better and better as it went along.

    For other science fiction by LeGuin I recommend The Lathe of Heaven and The Dispossessed.

  3. February 27, 2012 8:49 am

    I just reread Lefthand of Darkness. I share your complaints and add some more of my own. My review will be up in a couple of days. But overall I am more sympathetic even with her failures. I suspect that here and in her early boy’s adventure stories she just didn’t see much good about being female.

    My very favorite of hers is her Commencement Speech at Bryn Mawr on gender, language, and power. She’s come a long way.

    My new favorite alternative gender novel is Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Again review soon.

    • February 27, 2012 1:29 pm

      I’m sympathetic to her gender failures too! I wasn’t so sympathetic to how bored I felt for the first two hundred pages. I’m frustrated that didn’t come across in my post…I’m not as good about writing on books that I rate as ‘three stars.’ Oh well. I’ll pop Ammonite on my wish list!

  4. February 27, 2012 10:08 am

    I didn’t find this as brilliant as I was led to expect either. I haven’t read heaps of her work but so far my favourite has been an anthology dealing with different ideas about sexuality – The Birthday of the World. I thought some of the stories in that were excellent.

  5. February 27, 2012 10:36 am

    I didn’t mind the pronouns, mostly because to me it was a way of representing the way that the narrator couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that each person in Gethenian society was both male and female. It wasn’t until his time with Estraven in the tent that he began to gain any sort of comprehension of the fact that he was allowing his opinions of people to be clouded by the way that he was trying to assume that they were all “male.” I also thought that the harsh climate on Gethen was neat because it left readers to speculate how much of the culture was due to a lack of defined gender roles and how much was due to physical necessity.

    • February 27, 2012 1:30 pm

      See, I question the pronouns as narrator explanation, because when the narrator changes the pronouns don’t. I did love the setting & how the Ice Age affected its culture!

  6. February 27, 2012 11:01 am

    Your comments are really interesting as I am contemplating a PhD thesis on a different set of sci-fi novels concentrating on feminist issues. I know I will need to read this book as it is definitely part of the cannon in this genre. Now I am wondering what I will find :)

  7. February 27, 2012 12:04 pm

    Let me address your “Disappointment number one” that “le Guin could have just created a new pronoun, one that in the native’s language doesn’t convey gender, to use with the appropriate narrator.” I was teaching management classes about sexism and racism in 1980, trying to help the men (and the managers were all men) understand racism and sexism. This book was published over a decade earlier, in 1969. We can’t really expect Ursula Le Guin to adhere to 21st century standards, and even if she tried, the publishers would probably have changed the pronouns to fit their (1969) standards.

    When I read The Left Hand of Darkness decades ago, I was very impressed with it, even though by the early 1970s I was meeting regularly with a consciousness raising group of women. We shouldn’t expect writers to take giant steps, when people (at best) were only willing to take baby steps. I think Le Guin moved society in the right direction.

    Have you read The Dispossessed? That’s probably my favorite Le Guin novel. The book of hers that I enjoyed most, though, was The Altered I, about the writing classes she taught — it had great examples from students attempting to write science fiction. The cover showed a green-and-blue eye (an altered “eye”), which suggested to me that I had to begin seeing differently, if “I” were to be “altered.”

    • February 27, 2012 1:31 pm

      I did point out that I know I’m reading from a different time. :) On the other hand, Atwood’s Edible Woman came out in this time period & is far more satisfying on the gender fronts.

      I’m confused as to why you think the publishers wouldn’t have accepted an alien pronoun; there are other alien words regularly used in the text. Thanks for the additional recs!

      • February 28, 2012 9:20 am

        Okay, my memory may be faulty on the use of pronouns, as it’s been years since I read this book. My gripe with publishers may come from 1964-5, when I sold my first article to a national magazine. It was about encouraging your child to doodle. Once they had bought full rights, the editors changed “your child” to “junior” throughout the whole article. That highly annoyed me, since daughters are not usually called “junior.” Maybe Le Guin was not as far along in her consciousness of gender problems at that time.

        I like what cbjames says (below): “I think inventing a new pronoun in 1969 would have made the book about the pronoun instead of about the larger issue. If you know what I mean. I do remember some discussion about pronouns in science fiction back in the early 1980′s.” I think that’s more or less what I was trying to say, probably not very well. He mentioned He, She, and It by Marge Piercy, and I’ve put it on hold at my library — but since it was published in 1991, I would expect Piercy to do better with the pronouns.

        Thanks for this discussion with me, as I know it’s hard on you these days.

      • February 28, 2012 2:46 pm

        Oh wow Bonnie: thanks for sharing your story. Since I’m an 80s child, I definitely don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what pre-feminist US society was like. That’s part of why I think expectations got in the way of my reading; if I didn’t know going in that it was a gender-bending ‘feminist classic,’ I don’t know if I’d have been as frustrated. Oh well. I’m going to give the Piercy a go as well! :) (And I haven’t read The Dispossessed, but I’ll pop it on my tbr list.)

        I’m thrilled that this post really got a discussion going, so thanks for taking the time to start one with me! :)

      • March 7, 2012 7:58 am

        I now have the library copy of He, She, and It, though I’m busy and can’t start it right away. I hope we get a chance to discuss it, so I’ll let you know what comes of my reading.

  8. Jenny permalink
    February 27, 2012 12:26 pm

    I had much the same reaction you did to this book — though I wasn’t so much disappointed as just bored — but I remember really enjoying The Lathe of Heaven. I read it a long time ago now, though. I’m not sure how I’d read it today. At least take that into consideration. :)

    • February 27, 2012 1:32 pm

      My second disappointment was essentially how bored I was for most of the book too!

  9. February 27, 2012 12:28 pm

    I read this book ages ago and hardly remember it. I do still have my copy and plan to reread it before the year is out. I have a lot of problems with le Guin. BUT, I did enjoy her young adult trilogy: Gifts, Voices, and Powers. I also enjoyed Lavinia. I also read one of her non-fiction that wasn’t too bad. I can’t remember the title at the moment, though.

  10. February 27, 2012 1:14 pm

    LeGuin was just recommended to me recently as a Sci Fi writer to try. I will probably try one of her other works besides this one. Based on your review, this one might not be the best one for me to judge her writing by.

  11. Chris permalink
    February 27, 2012 3:03 pm

    Strange that you found it so boring. I do not normally read SF, but this one I devoured in one transatlantic flight — not sleeping at all and paying dearly the next day ;-)
    I did not find it boring in the least.

    I see your point about the pronouns — but only intellectually, not emotionally thinking back how I responded to the book.
    I must admit that my reading this book is some time ago, so I do not remember everything very well, but I do remember never being truly disturbed by the choice of “male” pronouns and I am just wondering why that is so (I am not male).
    I guess the reason is the following: By using male pronouns throughout the novel (irrespective of the narrator) I felt thrown more thoroughly into the “earthlings” mindset (which anyway comes natural ;-)) and I could go his transition with him.
    This would have been spoiled, had I been presented with another (more appropriately neutral) perspective in an early chapter.

    Regarding the earthsea books: They (in the full cycle) very nicely show the changes in ULGs work and voice over the years. I think that you would really enjoy the later earthsea books.

  12. February 27, 2012 3:05 pm

    I had many of the same issues with the book, though I think I ended up enjoying it more overall. (I wrote a fairly detailed review a couple of years back.) My biggest problem was a lack of connection with the characters. I love Le Guin’s prose and think she deals with some fascinating ideas throughout her body of work, but she almost never moves me. I always expect more on an emotional level.

    The pronouns also gave me a fair amount of grief with this one. Like you, I originally assumed that Ai used male pronouns and titles like “Lord” and “King” because he was a foreigner who had yet to learn better. It jarred me when Estraven also used them throughout his journal entries. As a result, I ended up reading the book not as an exploration of a gender-neutral society but as an exploration of a society in which men are in no way penalized for performing female gender under certain conditions.

    • February 28, 2012 2:47 pm

      Thanks for the link! I’ll go read your review. :) I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t connect w le Guin’s characters.

  13. February 27, 2012 4:50 pm

    I had much the same reaction as you, Eva. I was really very disappointed by the whole book, which I’ve read twice (the first time for a uni course, the second for an online book club), even though there are parts of it that I quite like. If anything, it only showed to me how much we struggle to break free of the limits of our own imaginations. I’m finding that, when it comes to writing alien characters, or otherworldly beings like vampires or suchlike, we really struggle to think “alien”. Which isn’t a surprise – after all, all the gods we’ve ever come up with aren’t technically human, but you’d never know it from all our theistic texts and other depictions, would you? ;)

    Here’s my review, which I’m not sure articulated my thoughts at all well, but there you go.

    On the other hand, my mum loves the Earthsea books and got me the original trilogy a couple of years ago; I’ve read the first two and loved the second one, The Tombs of Atuan, which has a really wonderful female character in it. So I got The Word for World is Forest to read, as it sounds like a book I’d like. Do you know it?

  14. February 27, 2012 6:59 pm

    I just finished my third re-read of The Left Hand Of Darkness and am working on my review. Though I understand your complaints I feel that Le Guin pushed boundries with this novel, particularly because she was writing a book based on flexible gender in a genre that was (and still is) biased towards male authors.

    I am sorry you were bored. I found the mix of geopolitics, anthropology and culture fascinating.

  15. February 27, 2012 7:51 pm

    I’ve always felt Urusual LeGuin’s science fiction is really about ideas rather than plot or character, which can make for dull reading. Honestly, if you’re lukewarm about this one and about Wizard of Earthsea, then you should not read her anymore. While I don’t think Left Hand of Darkness is her best science fiction, it’s one of her better ones. You should give Marge Piercy or Samuel Delany a try instead. They also ask interesting questions about sexuality and gender in their books.

    I think inventing a new pronoun in 1969 would have made the book about the pronoun instead of about the larger issue. If you know what I mean. I do remember some discussion about pronouns in science fiction back in the early 1980’s. Marge Piercy wrote a book called He/She/It – I think that’s the right order. I’ve not read it myself, but it might be more along the lines of what you’re looking for.

    I’ve been reading LeGuin’s science fiction lately and have to say it’s nice to have larger, more philisophical issues addressed. It seems like so much of what’s published these days is really about adventure and romance. Not that either of those are bad things, but science fiction from the 1960’s and 1970’s and many books from later dates, looked at questions that risked causing the reader real discomfort. I always thought that was a brave thing to do.

    • February 28, 2012 3:00 pm

      Ohh, thanks for the Piercy & Delany recs! I should probably have included in my post that I am not a sci-fi person the way I am a fantasy or mystery person, so perhaps I just don’t the background in the genre to appreciate this one.

      >>I think inventing a new pronoun in 1969 would have made the book about the pronoun instead of about the larger issue. If you know what I mean.

      That’s probably true, and it probably would’ve seemed v gimmicky.

      >>I’ve been reading LeGuin’s science fiction lately and have to say it’s nice to have larger, more philisophical issues addressed.

      I love books that address philosophical stuff too, so perhaps I should give her another go not expecting anything but neat ideas. That could work!

      Thanks for leaving such a long & thoughtful comment CB. V thought provoking!

  16. February 28, 2012 3:30 am

    Reading Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea when I was about 8 or 9 was when I knew I was a reader. It was a book that I was reading in class and I was so involved in it that I didn’t hear my name being called until the whole class shouted it! I’ve got it on the shelf now and can’t wait to read it to my son.

  17. February 28, 2012 3:46 am

    I also felt very “lukewarm” about Wizard of Earthsea and everyone looked at me in horror. In the end I put it down to reading it for the first time as an adult, which happened with other books, like Alice in Wonderland and Narnia.

    • February 28, 2012 3:01 pm

      I read it as an adult too. I do think that some books have a window, although other books meant for children I can read for the first time now & just love. I wonder what the difference is.

  18. February 28, 2012 4:48 pm

    I’m sorry this didn’t pan out for you. I remember being absolutely blown away by it in high school, but, then again, it’s been a few years. I’ll approach my reread with an eye to the issues you’ve pointed out.

  19. February 29, 2012 2:13 pm

    I’d like to chime in with those who’ve suggested that the later Earthsea books are perhaps more what you’d expect to find in a writer who’s been so consistently hailed as progressive and feminist/egalitarian-minded. (Also, the earlier books are much more enjoyable in the hardcover editions with the full-page woodcut illustrations!) The series as a whole, as someone else has said — but I can’t find it up there now that I’m looking for it — does seem to reflect the author’s changing ideas about female characters and their roles in the stories she’s telling. But the early books, read outside of that six-book context, are less satisfying, I think.

    The Dispossessed is one that I quite enjoyed, and The Telling is one that I’ve read a few times (but it takes a couple of chapters to get into, though there are a couple of aspects of it that I think you might enjoy). I hope you do find a connection with her and with such a vast body of writing, surely there’s one book for you in it!

    (I echo the recommendation of Ammonite, and I loved Marge Piercy’s works although, when I’ve re-read them, since, I found they felt a little more “of their time” than I thought they would.)

  20. March 1, 2012 3:12 pm

    I have yet to read anything by Le Guin (which I need to remedy). This one would’ve been high on my recognition list, but I’m sorry you didn’t dig it, Eva. If I end up reading this one I’ll be curious to see how our experiences stack up. Very interesting issues in this book, it seems.


  1. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. « Me, you, and books
  2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin |

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