A review by levendir1021
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

4.0

Rating: 4/5

I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?

The Left Hand of Darkness is a Science Fiction tale about a man, Genly Ai, arriving at a faraway planet and trying to establish communication and a sort of alliance with it and his cluster of allied planets. This planet, however, is truly very different from everything he and we know. Winter, as the planet is called, is in a constant state of various degrees of… you guessed it… winter. Hence the people there have evolved to deal with the exceedingly harsh circumstances but this is not the only aspect Genly Ai has to come to terms with. The people of Winter are also, in the words of the author, ambisexual, neither male nor female until they reach their fertile period which is when they randomly (not quite but almost) “turn” into being either male or female. We follow Genly Ai as he has to overcome his own prejudices and understand the people of Winter, their traditions and slowly clears up his misunderstanding with someone called Estraven, an influential local politician (sort of) as the story progresses.

I am not going to lie, this book was neither what I expected nor was it easy to get into. For the first 100 pages or so, I pretty much didn’t understand anything that was happening and was very close to DNFing the book. Le Guin really went hard on the SciFi-terminology, bombarding us with names, concepts, places etc. to a point where I felt completely overwhelmed. But as I read on, not only did all the confusion clear, it also started to become very obvious to me that this was very much intended. Le Guin does with this book to us exactly what is happening to the protagonist Genly Ai, he is confused, doesn’t understand the alien culture and people but slowly starts to learn as he spends time with them and starts opening up. And I have to admit, as much as I didn’t enjoy those first few pages, it totally paid off in the end. By the end, everything is more than clear, the narrative and story make sense and all the details are sufficiently explained.

The Left hand of Darkness is very much an exploration of a new world, new concepts and while it does have a good plot and characters, this is not really the focus of the book. Don’t get me wrong, the story had me gripped by the end and it is truly brutal at times. In fact, a lot of it also did strike me as an exploration of political systems, especially Communism, and what they would look like in a different setting with different biological foundations. It is not important to remember all the names of the characters, what Le Guin seems to want us to focus on is understanding and intercultural communication as well as to start thinking about what a world without gender would look like.

On the note of Gender and Sexuality, I have to add that this book was written in 1969 and there were some moments where that came through very much. The book never gives the concept of being non-binary or trans as an option but stays very rigidly in its two-gender perspective, even for the ambisexual people of Winter. While this is gradually broken up slightly with Genly Ai starting to understand the nature of the natives, it is never truly broken up to the extent that I would have wished for, especially as the protagonist keeps using he/him pronouns for everyone, therefore never truly giving the reader that non-gendered feeling. But I also have to add that for the time, this was most likely a truly new and daring concept and it is fascinating to look at a work from so long ago for this.

Spoiler Also, I am convinced that by the end Genly Ai and Estraven were in love and no one can convince me otherwise. Noone can travel for, what, 80 days alone in the snow with someone and sleep huddled up together, morn someone’s death, visit their family after to get close and have just been “friends”