Review of The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/24/06


  This is the third book by Ursula LeGuin that I’ve read. The first was the novel The Lathe Of Heaven, which is a great book. The next was a collection of short stories called Changing Planes. It was horrid. The Left Hand Of Darkness falls somewhere in between. It is a book that has a good premise but is poorly constructed, and has no real character development. That it won 1969 Hugo award and 1970 Nebula award for sci fi, especially considering it bested Kurt Vonnegut’s great Slaughterhouse-5, is puzzling.

  The book is basically about a young black earth envoy named Genley Ai, who in the distant future, is sent as an envoy to the planet Gethen, or Winter- an Arctic world, and his attempt to gauge the planet’s readiness for acceptance into a federation of planets, the Galactic Ekumen of Worlds. The humans on this planet, descended all from the same human stock that populates over eighty worlds and three thousand nations, are hermaphrodites, and sexually latent, except for once a month going into estrus, of sorts, and mate with a partner- this is called kemmer. They have the ability to change sexes during this time, albeit randomly, so a Gethenian can be a father and a mother to broods. Perhaps the best part of this book is the descriptions of the cultures of the Gethenian nations that Ai wanders through with his natal lover Estraven. The exploration of minds free from gender leaves possibilities that LeGuin does not really delve into- possibly for the times the book was written in, but it still leaves a huge gape that the rather pedestrian glacial adventures of the duo engage in. For example- Gethen is free of war but the reason of that fact being caused by the Gethenian latent sexuality or the harsh climate is barely broached. Neither character is well developed and Ai is mainly a cipher, with no insight into things, especially his own feelings for Estraven.

  In the end Estraven is killed when he and Ai are on the lam, between nations, and by book’s end any real lessons learned are superfluous. The ending, especially, is weak- as was The Lathe Of Heaven’s. The difference was all that came before. Had the book been written twenty-five years later it could have been accused of being PC. Especially poor are the Gethenian ‘myths’ that get chapters, and the switching of points of views. Since the characters are mostly ciphers their insights are not sufficiently different that they provide parallax to the planet nor their tale. And, despite praise to the contrary, this book has precious little to say on homosexuality, or sexuality in general.

  LeGuin tosses many ideas and possibilities, yet leaves all untied- especially in her allegory of the two main Gethenian nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn- stand ins for the Cold War superpowers of the day. This would not be a flaw, merely a stylistic choice, were the book an awesome character exploration. It is not. And given that it is sci fi only in name- time jumping and sub-space communications the only real ‘hard’ sci fi- that would seem to afford LeGuin ample opportunity to explore more deeply characters and idea- like the effects of being able to transmit knowledge across the galaxy simultaneously, yet not physical matter nor beings. So, why didn’t she? I think she was simply incapable of it. Her ideas on sexuality are still rather coy, and she seems a more mind over heart writer. The Lathe Of Heaven soared on its ideas, but while the two main characters were well sketched- as idea men- any attempt at showing humans interact in relationships other than diurnal exposed her weakness in dealing with human emotion.

  Another problem with this novel vis-à-vis The Lathe Of Heaven is that it is harshly prosaic in its construction- both in the macro-construction of the book and chapters and the micro-construction of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. As the other novel could be poetic this suggests to me a choice, although it could be, as The Left Hand Of Darkness was an earlier book she merely got more poetic in later works. But, if a choice it begs the query why be so dry when the tale and characters need all the flavor they can get? Quite simply, this suggests the reason is a flaw- the writing is just poor.

  Yet, ultimately, as unfleshed, the ideas suffer, too, as the book veers off into the surefire sign , Zen, and all that. The worst example is the bad ‘poem selection’ from a Handarra (Gethenian Zen) prayer that gives the book its title:


Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end of the way.


  It is because of this poor attempt at spirituality, I believe, and not the actual minor substance of the book, that it is so beloved. This is a good example of the idea of something standing in for the art, or the idea’s expression, and thus being feted for the idea, which few enlightened folks could argue with. It was also a good idea to show a planet’s pivotal moment- first contact with aliens- through a personal account, not from a sweeping epical point of view. Yet, that behooves a good tale and interesting character- not just the good idea to forsake the epical sweep.

  Ironically, despite the novel’s overpraise, the best summation of the book comes from an anonymous editor who rejected the book, reproduced on LeGuin’s own website: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Reject.html.


  The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material.

  I would disagree with the book’s being ‘endlessly complicated’ and ‘unreadable’, but, other than that he totally nails the flaws. The book is as dull and slow as winter, and begs the query, and future reads, as to which writer is LeGuin- the master of The Lathe Of Heaven? The doggerelist and piss poor short story writer of Changing Planes,? Or, the mediocrity of The Left Hand Of Darkness? I shall explore this, but, after my bout of yawning.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website]

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