Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Bottom line: Meh.

Rating: Recommended if: you’re doing a tour of classic sci fi authors.

Blurb:

When the human ambassador Genly Ai is sent to Gethen, the planet known as Winter by those outsiders who have experienced its arctic climate, he thinks that his mission will be a standard one of making peace between warring factions. Instead the ambassador finds himself wildly unprepared. For Gethen is inhabited by a society with a rich, ancient culture full of strange beauty and deadly intrigue—a society of people who are both male and female in one, and neither. This lack of fixed gender, and the resulting lack of gender-based discrimination, is the very cornerstone of Gethen life. But Genly is all too human. Unless he can overcome his ingrained prejudices about the significance of “male” and “female,” he may destroy both his mission and himself.

Review:

I was really excited to read this book, as I’ve heard really great things of Le Guin, the book is generally really highly reviewed, and it won a Hugo AND a Nebula award. I ended up being really disappointed. I think overall, if I hadn’t had such high expectations, I might have enjoyed it more than I did, but not by much.

Basically, the entire book was a heav-handed exploration of the question “what would society be like if there were no gender?” The world she created was quite interesting, and the basic conflict set up was how cultural differences impact communication, which is something I’ve always found fascinating. Even the action/survival part of the story – once we finally got there – was enjoyable. However, everything came back to how sex works in this society, and its impact on the culture.

It’s a book that’s supposed to make you stop and think about gender and sexuality in our own society, but being a naturally stubborn person, the more you hit me over the head with something, the less likely I am to want to acquiesce. I think this book would have been much more impactful, to me at least, if the themes were more subtly woven through the story. I wanted the world and the two different cultures we met with to be more fleshed out. I wanted to get a better view of the relationships between the main characters. I wanted the action to be better paced (instead of people sitting around talking or walking through the snow for half of the book, then suddenly a bomb goes off and Stuff Starts To Happen).

There was so much going for this book that I wanted to like, but for me it just never managed to come together. I felt like it was trying too hard to be Intellectual. Obviously, millions of people (including the voters of the Hugo and Nebula panels) disagree with me. It was a book I felt to be worth the read, especially if you’re interested in exploring some of the early-contemporary sci fi authors, but it wasn’t a book that I could ever get totally immersed in, or couldn’t wait to pick up again when I put it down.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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