Friday, February 29, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Date Finished: February 29, 2008
Yearly Count: 10
Pages: 301
Rating: 1.5/5

I'm writing this post with the awareness that I cannot do this book justice--mostly because I didn't understand it. Great way to start, huh? Science fiction is a genre I consciously steer clear of, and perhaps with some more exposure it is a genre that I can learn to appreciate. Certainly I can appreciate many aspects of this book, but overall my experience with this book was not an enjoyable one.

I'll start with the back cover of the book (I realize this is SO lame):

"On the planet Winter, there is no gender. The Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle, and this is something that other cultures find incomprehensible.

The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent an ethnologist to study the inhabitants of this forbidding, ice-bound world. At first he [Genly Ai] finds his subjects difficult and off-putting, with their elaborate social systems and alien minds. But in the course of a long journey across the ice he reaches and understanding with one of the Gethenians [Estraven]--it might even be a kind of love..."

What I liked about The Left Hand of Darkness: Le Guin's language is exquisite. After coming off of Water for Elephants, I really appreciated the insight and careful look at humankind through Le Guin's thoughtful and strong command of her storytelling. One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Le Guin explores the inherent roles of men and women, especially as the Gethenians are not necessarily either man or woman. There is a poignant section (my pages 234-5) that discuss the differences between men and women and the difficulties that Ai has in verbalizing the different characteristics. I believe this book would have been best read (for me) in a college course where I could have teased out some of the themes (gender, societal evolution, crime and punishment, etc).

What I struggled with: While the book had many very interesting sections (namely the section where Ai is in prison and then when he and Estraven make their journey back to Karhide together), the book became very dense in other parts. Le Guin provides a detailed mythology of the planet and the different cultures that I often got lost in; the language (specific words) and culture were difficult for me to get past because they are utterly foreign. Also, the book is a sort of compilation of different artifacts (some myth, some from Estraven's journal, some from Ai's journal, etc); because of the different points of view and the lack of voice, I had a difficult time discerning who's point of view I was reading. This was a difficult read for me, but I'm glad I finished and can move on.


Ana S. said...

Well, I really understand how you feel. Even though I list Le Guin among my favourite authors, I wouldn't recommend this book to people. It really is a hard one to get through.

It was only when I got to the part about Ai and Estravan's journey through the ice that the book clicked with me, and from then one I read faster and less strenuously. But even then, it wasn't an easy book. Funny though - as time passes I find myself looking back on it more and more fondly. It's a book I'm glad to have read, even if I didn't always enjoy the process.

I just hope this doesn't discourage you from reading more of her work some day. I can guarantee that not all of her books are like this!

CJ said...


I've tried to read one of her books but didn't get very far and it didn't leave any sort of impression becauase I can't recall which it was.


Jeane said...

I read this years ago and all I remember is that it was about gender roles of an alien race, and I struggled with it. I much prefer her works that lean more towards fantasy: the Earthsea series, The Lathe of Heaven, etc.

Literary Feline said...

I don't often read science fiction, I admit. I am not familiar with this book, although I do know the author from her Earthsea books. I have read the first one in that series and I did enjoy it. Of course, that is fantasy, which is a genre I tend to settle into better than science fiction.

I am sorry you didn't care for this one. I can see why from what you said though, and it's probably not one I would care to try.

Joy said...

YIKES! If it makes you feel any better, I probably would have abandoned it.

Onward! :)

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Nymeth - The second half of the book was much easier for me to read, but even some of the descriptions of the journey were tedious to read. I most enjoyed the developing relationship between Estraven and Ai and wish that there could have been more (because even when they were travelling together there was SO much about the outside conditions rather than their budding connection). From what you and others have said, I think I would pick up another of her books if I found one at a booksale, but at this point I'm not putting her on my wishlist. :)

And now a stupid question (maybe): What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy??

*CJ - I've read a few books like that. It's funny because my old boss gave this one to me after he finished his women in lit course (while I was working for him) and he mentioned what a good book it was. Except for his random scribblings in the book I can imagine he actually read it!

*Jeane - Nymeth has also read and reviewed some of those other books very favorably on her blog. If I see them in a booksale in the future, I'll probably give Le Guin another go around.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Literary Feline - I keep thinking that if I read more science fiction then I'll understand it better, but I feel as though I really only got a portion of this book. It did have it's interesting aspects, but the work negated any pleasure for me. Oh well!

*Joy - If I didn't have it listed on two challenges I probably would have abandoned it. Even all the way until the end I really didn't care whether or not I finished it. Yes, Onward!!

Framed said...

Hmmm, sounds interesting but probably not for me. I'm like you and don't read a lot of sci fi. "Enders Game" is a wonderful exception so I'm going to work on that series. Glad I read the comments and saw that the author has some other work out there. It does sound like she writes very well. Thanks for the review

Ana S. said...

Trish, that is not a stupid question at all. When science fiction first came along, what defined it was that it was fiction based on some kind of scientific speculation. "What if we could travel back in time?" or "what if there was life in Mars" are some very simple examples, but some of it was a lot more complex, and many sci-fi books actually contained some hard science. Fantasy, on the other hand, was about flights of the imagination with no anchor whatsoever, and some of it was influenced by mythology (Tolkien being the prime example here).

But nowadays this distinction is not as simple anymore, which is why your question really does make sense. There are a lot of science fiction books out there that are not exactly based on any kind of scientific speculation, or that are based on the kind of speculation that has by now become a common plot device, like time travel. And there are books that blur the line between the two, that some refer to as "science fantasy". I guess that nowadays the difference is mostly in the mood of the book, and in some of the elements that are used: magic versus future technology, wands versus light sabres, alien life forms versus elves :P

Sorry that this is so long!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Nymeth - don't apologize for your comment being too long! I really appreciate the insight. I know the general differences between the two genres but sometimes have a difficult time discerning which is which.

Kim L said...

This is a book I'd like to read at some point because I do like Ursula K. Leguin, but I'm glad you pointed out what the challenges are to reading it. Sometimes I can get into a book with a lot of backstory and jargon, other times I just can't. I guess it depends on my reading mood. Thank you for the review!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Framed - I've heard a lot of good things about Ender's Game--and a lot of buzz about his other works through the Cardathon Challenge.

*Kim L - I've heard great things about Le Guin--but mostly in terms of her fantasy books. I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it--I'm glad I read it just for the experience of it.

heather (errantdreams) said...

LeGuin's work can be really fascinating if you're up for it, but it's often not the best choice for relaxed reading. She's very much from the old-school brand of SF authors who originally used SF as a means of pushing boundaries and expanding thought.

Bookfool said...

Okay, so this one's a skip. I've only read one LeGuin book and it was well-written, as you say, but very slow. I do like sci-fi, but on a limited basis.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Heather - I can see how this book might have pushed boundaries back in the 70s when it was published. I knew it wasn't going to be an easy read and I probably should have given it some more attention--and possibly secondary reading, but what can I say? :)

*Bookfool - I've heard great things about her other books--this one just wasn't for me.

bethany (dreadlock girl) said...

Hey! I started my own book blog! thanks for all your inspiration. come stop by, tell me what you think. its at:

i love this book reading stuff!

too bad about that book, I have always heard good things about that author...sorry.

alisonwonderland said...

i enjoyed reading your review. the premise of the book is intriguing to me, but i doubt i'll add it to my to-read list (at least at this point).

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Bethany - I've heard good things about Le Guin as well, so I haven't completely written her off yet. But--can't like every book (at least not in reality). :)

*Alison - Thanks for coming by! The premise was fascinating but the execution was too technical for my liking. I've heard her other books are very you might consider something else instead.