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