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

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the most famous novels by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Genly Ai is an emissary from the Ekumen – an interplanetary alliance. He was sent to the planet of Winter to try to convince them to join the alliance. But it’s always difficult to adapt to a new culture and the humans on Winter are quite different. Most notably, they spent most of their time in a neuter state (what they call sommer) – only a couple of days a month do they develop male or female bodies and sexual urges (kemmer). Genly’s naivit√© quickly gets him into trouble, though, when he fails to realize the political pitfalls.

Since The Left Hand of Darkness is classic gender studies material and generally supposed to be very good, I expected a whole lot. And I’m afraid it might have been too much or the wrong things. In any case I was strangely disappointed by the book and did not enjoy it a whole lot.

I’m of the school that sex, gender and sexual orientation are only marginally connected and that gender is much more flexible than we give it room for in our society (in fact I think that if we gave it more room it might become so flexible as to become pretty irrelevant) and this book has all the options of showing a society of where all of this is happening already. And it just fails on that account for me. I think the problem for me was Genly and his perspective. [And details like homosexuality isn’t happening on Winter because the people can change their sex anyway and who would enjoy homosexual sex if they aren’t forced to have it…]

Genly just manages to be ever so slightly misogynistic in his characterisations of the people of Winter: since he sees them all as male (it is the standard and female the deviation, as we well know, so in sommer they’re of course “he”…), everytime they show “female characteristics” you can hear a slight undertone of disgust in his voice. And that is extremely annoying. It is in character, maybe, but it’s still annoying.

I probably would have liked the book a lot more without Genly in it. I understand that he was supposed to be the audience stand-in who explained the world to the reader but I just didn’t think it was necessary. Since the point of view a book is told from is a pretty fundamental thing, it is no wonder that I didn’t really get into it.

The best part of the book was definitely Le Guin’s prologue. I just loved this part:

Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.

Summarising: Really not my thing.

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