Hello dear reader(s) and welcome to another instalment of Nessa reads books and writes reviews (NRBWR). Hopefully this one will be short and sweet, because the book I’m reviewing today is for a special edition of my biweekly book club. Sadly Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of many amazing fantasy and science fiction books, passed away a month ago. The members of the book club in collaboration with F&ST Association decided to honour her life and career by reading The Left Hand of Darkness.
The novel was first published in 1969, but Le Guin added an introductory essay to the novel in 1976 in which she explained the thought process behind The Left Hand of Darkness. She called her science fiction writing a thought-experiment. The whole novel truly is a thought-experiment and if you’re reading it for the first time it can be a difficult read. Her thought-experiment requires your engagement, it forces you to break your preconceptions, to think about issues that perhaps you haven’t thought before and see things differently. This thought-experiment makes the book so interesting and unique. When I was writing my reading notes about The Left Hand of Darkness in preparation for this review I rarely wrote about the plot. The plot was a supporting character in my notes; it matters, but that’s not the reason you pick this book up and start reading it. The various themes of the thought-experiment are.
Among many other themes the book reflects on issues of gender and sex through the population of the planet Gethen/Winter. Individuals on Gethen are ambisexual – they have no fixed sex, only a potential to become either male or female during the period in which they become sexually active. This duality of the individuals on Gethen is both fascinating and confusing. What happens if we remove a fixed male or female gender or identity? If the lines between the traditional male and female gender roles don’t exist? Can we connect, empathize and understand these humanoids?
We explore these issues through the Terran character Genly Ai, who is Ekumen’s First Mobile (ambassador) on Gethen. Prior to his arrival Gethen and its population were surveyed by a team of undercover investigators. They made fascinating observations, which are food for thought, and I’ll quote some of them here.
Consider: A child has no psycho-sexual relationship to his mother and father. There is no myth of Oedipus on Winter.
Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.
Another interesting thing that Le Guin puts into her thought-experiment is that Gethen the countries of Gethen have no concept of nationalism, and that there’s no war on Gethen. The reader naturally asks himself/herself is ambisexuality the reason for this? Would war, nationalism and other types of pissing contests we know be eliminated if there was no fixed gender, if a person is both male and female? There’s no straight answer to these questions, but as I mentioned at the beginning, this book forces you to think about these questions and engages you in a pursuit for answers. It encourages you to think, to look beyond your own preconceptions and knowledge.
However, although prominent, the themes of sex and gender are not the only ones explored in this novel. It also explores the concepts of loyalty, betrayal, trust, honour and communication. All of those themes and concepts are connected and a paradigm shift in one aspect influences not only the characters, but also the reader her perceptions. All of these ideas, themes and concepts can seem too much at any point during your reading stage. They are meant to, because you’re supposed to engage with the book, think about all of this and juggle all of those concepts in mind and break your own preconceptions. The book slow-ish pace almost demands that you stop, put the book down, drink your tea or coffee and just think about what you read. After you sort your thoughts out the book is there, waiting for you to continue.
In conclusion if like science fiction, especially complex works of science fiction that challenge your preconceptions you’ll truly enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness. If this is your first encounter with Le Guin’s work take your time and bear with, it’s worth it. Take your time, there’s no rush. If you stubble on something, pause, take a break, than pick up the book and start again. Reading Le Guin’s biography and the essay about the book itself might make the reading easier. Let me know if it did and how you got along with the book in the comments below or on Twitter. I’m always there and I’d love to chat with you. Until next time dear reader(s)!
Featured image posted with permission of the author – Marijana Munitić. Please go check out her Instagram.