by Ursula Le Guin
Once again I take the risky journey into another “classic”. First published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness was Le Guin’s fifth novel and went on to win both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. No mean feat and an achievement that would make any book worthy of the “classic” status it has achieved.
One of the best features of science fiction is that as a genre it is quite hard to define and novels within the sphere range from all-out space operas and boys-own adventures, to the thought-provoking and visionary. Sometimes, all the same book.
So how does The Left Hand of Darkness fit into this?
Well, I do approach all “classics” with an open mind and some trepidation. I have only too often found myself disappointed. And I have to say that, at first, I thought that this was going to be one of those. It got off to a stuttering start and I struggled a little with the characters and the distant world they inhabited.
The main character, Genly Ai is a representative of the Ekumen, a collection of worlds linked only by their humanity. His role is to observe the people of the winter-world Gethen and to work towards bringing them into the fold. In this universe, mankind is spread throughout the galaxy but there is no explanation of the background to this, just an assumption the reader is happy to go along with it.
The Gethenians are unique amongst the known worlds as they are the only androgynous race whose lives are governed by a sexual cycle that can lead to them becoming male or female at the height of their cycle. To them, Genly’s permanent sexuality is a perversion.
The thurst of the novel’s narrative comes from Genly as he becomes inadvertently drawn into the complexities of the politics and national conflicts of this winter world.
When his only true friend and ally falls foul of the political intrigues of the court of King Argaven, Ai begins a journey across the continent that puts him in great personal danger. His escape and the challenges presented by his journey across the vast ice fields with his now-disgraced friend are the book’s most memorable moments.
Left Hand of Darkness is a slow burner of a book, but one worth the effort. The Gethenian’s androgynous nature allows Le Guin to question our own preoccupation with gender, something very relevant today. Although I would not list it as one of my “classics”, it is certainly a book worthy of its accolades. Le Guin’s easy style and driving narrative give the book real pace, even when there seems to be little happening. The swapping between narrators allows the reader to see events from two different perspectives that I found interesting and kept me on my toes.
So, a good book. One I would certainly recommend, but not to the more casual Sci-Fi reader. It is a book of its genre.