Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Scifi For Beginners: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Posted by Simcha 11:51 AM, under | 6 comments

I haven’t read a lot of books about aliens though I’ve always kind of imagined them as strange humanoid creatures, perhaps with antennas on their heads, who land their spaceships on Earth and demand ‘take me to your leader.’ But I’ve never thought about the other side of the story, about the humans who themselves are aliens when they arrive on foreign planets and encounter the inhabitants- at least not until I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

In the far-off future many new inhabited planets have been discovered and a coalition has been set up in which these planets unite in the sharing of ideas and information. Genly Ai is an envoy of this coalition, called the Ekumen, and he is sent to the planet of Winter, called Gethan by the inhabitant, to convince the citizens to join them. Unfortunately Genly Ai has difficulty understanding the Gethan culture, which is vastly different from his own, and makes numerous mistakes that place him and his mission in danger.

Genly Ai’s one real ally in Gethan is Estravan, who due to his support of the alien envoy is declared a traitor by the mad king of Karhide. The local leaders are suspicious of Genly Ai and have trouble believing his stories about life on other planets. Though it is clear that Genly Ai is of an alien species, since he is biologically different- being limited to the male gender at all time- and which leads him to be labeled “The Pervert.”

While the local population is suspicious of Genly Ai’s differences, Ai himself has a hard time accepting and understanding the citizens of Winter for the same reasons. A people who have no set gender, but rather switch genders each month, they also have no gender identities or sexual urges. Every person is capable of conceiving a child and every citizen has an equal role in society, completely lacking gender considerations. Genly Ai’s own assumptions, developed from living in a human culture, have no basis here and therefore he is thrown off balance in his political maneuvering. Refused by the king and then betrayed by those he had trusted, Genly Ai eventually finds himself depending on the one person who he trusts least

The Left Hand of Darkness starts off a bit slow, introducing the different players in the story and providing some background on the world of Gethan. But once the pace picks up I was completely captivated. I love stories of friendship, and the development of the relationship between Genly Ai and Estravan was wonderfully done. Each suspiciously views the other as abnormal, but eventually all the differences fall to the side when they have only each other to depend on.

Genly Ai has a difficult time in particular figuring out how to relate to a person without any gender guidelines to follow. The Gethan society provides some interesting questions as to what remains when gender differences are removed. We learn that there is no history of war in Gethan, which could be due to their lack of violent inclination, usually a masculine attribute, or it could just be a result of the harsh climate.

Genly Ai, on the other hand, was a bit harder to read though his love of country comes through in his actions and often leaves Genly Ai wondering what such a love really means.

I like the fact that the story is told in first person, switching between Genly Ai and Estravan’s points of view, so that readers can come to empathize equally with both of them. neither seeming more alien than the other.

The world building is also fantastic, bringing to life a world in the grip of an ice age, There is one part in particular where Genly Ai and Estravan are trekking through a vast wasteland of ice and snow, where the imagery was so vivid I had to go outside and warm up while reading.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a must-read for all science fiction fans, from novice to veteran, and I believe that even non-genre readers would enjoy it as well.


I've heard so much about LeGuin and have been told I MUST read her, so this review is so timely for me! I'm glad you enjoyed it, even if it was somewhat slow at the start.

Great review! It's in my tbr pile, but I never came around to reading it, but I will!

I've only read one book by Le Guin, shame on me! This one sounds interesting.

Well I feel better now, knowing that I'm not the only person to have not read Le Guin (until now, that is)

Aarti: I was really impressed by this book and I look forward to trying some of her fantasy next. I've already started The Wizard of Earthsea.

Aleksandra: I look forward to hearing your opinion of the book, when you do get to it.

Val: Which book did you read? I'm now eager to try more of her books.

This is really interesting. I didn't know what the book was about, but it now sounds interesting. Reading about these different alien races and their relationships. Cool. Thanks!

I also had no idea of what the book was about when I started, because there was no description on the back cover, though sometimes that's the best way to go into a book. If you want to try some scifi you should read this one. I think you would like it.

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