I admit right upfront that I spent most of my time reading the first half of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin just trying to figure out what the hell was going on. There is quite a bit of world building.
Genly Ai has been sent as an ambassador of a sort of union of planets to the planet Gethen, aka Winter. It’s perpetually cold here. Even colder is the attitude of the people he meets. First of all, some don’t believe he’s from another planet or if he is he’s running a game. There’s not much difference physically between Genly and the Gethenians, except the people here have no gender. They change into a female or male version of themselves once a month. They think he’s a weirdo, being a man all the time. He’s a freak.
Are you still with me? Okay. Genly’s frustration mounts as he realizes he’s just a pawn in someone’s political game. Unfortunately, he can’t tell who is on his side and who is against him. He spends a large part of the novel running around trying to avoid death or prison. When he finally figures out who his only ally is, they have a very Shackleton adventure.
I’m not sure I’m doing a very good job explaining the plot here but that’s all I got.
I really felt like I had been dropped onto a unknown planet myself when I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin is excellent at the ‘show don’t tell’ style of writing. Always good, yes, but I could have used a glossary. I didn’t know what half the words meant and usually it took 3 or 4 uses of it in the story before I caught on. The Gethenians would go by a couple of names too, so often I thought a new character had been introduced until I realized it was just one person. Then there is the politics and let me say I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree when it comes to politics on my own planet so most of that was right over my head. (I have no idea what was going on in the woods with the fortune teller dudes either).
However, I did get something out of it. No, really! The personal relationships were very interesting. Poor Genly gets so frustrated with everyone because their culture doesn’t allow them to say certain things without losing face and they assume he knows this. He doesn’t and he nearly gets himself killed because he can’t read between the lines. When he and his friend finally get time alone and talk, they have a better understanding of the differences between their cultures.
The lack of gender is a mind bender, especially since they use the pronoun ‘he’ for everyone. Why ‘he’? Why not make up a new pronoun? It was hard to remember that these people were genderless. I kept thinking of them as male. Genly could be an arse about it too. He made comments about how he didn’t trust certain people because of their “femaleness.” That kind of pissed me off. Being female makes someone less trustworthy?
I read The Left Hand of Darkness as part of the Gender in SFF Challenge and I can’t think of a more appropriate example of that than this book. The lack of gender and how Genly navigates this made me think about what a genderless society would be like. Sure, there would be no gender bias but, for all the crap females deal with, I like being a girl.
Le Guin is a clever writer and if anyone think sci-fi isn’t smart, they should read The Left Hand of Darkness. I’m not sure if I’m willing to take on anymore from her though. She might be too much for me!