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Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

June 11, 2010

You know, it pains me to say this, but this is a book that I actually didn’t like. (The dynamics of fantasy and sci fi are such that I feel terribly guilty to have not liked a book written by a woman. It feeds into that old problem of wanting every female writer to be brilliant – a standard that I’d never dream of applying to male writers.) This post, by the way, will include spoilers, so if you’re planning on reading the book, don’t read this.

To Le Guin’s credit, it was good enough that I finished it. I even went back and reread a couple of chapters, hoping that maybe it would be better the second time round, but sadly, it wasn’t. The premise of the story was a small conflict. The male protagonist arrives on the planet Winter, hoping to persuade the inhabitants of this planet to join a trading alliance. Since it’s ostensibly the point of the book, this is not made easy for him. To be honest, I was a little disappointed to see that the protagonist was male. Again, a standard to which I don’t hold male writers – although I should note that of the (modern) male authors on my bookshelf, only Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame) did not include a female main character. Of course, it’s also true that I own books by John Wyndham, George Orwell and Gerald Durrell, and these I consciously exclude from my own criticism, because  I’m ok with men who were adults before WWII choosing to write only about men. Or, in George Orwell’s case, pigs. But, like I say, it’s a standard I don’t hold male authors to.

Anyway. The story is meant to be about this conflict resolution. Except – it isn’t. Not really. That story acts as a fairly simplistic plot device, so that we have a reason to watch our protagonist, Genry Ai, learning how to interact with androgynous humans. The inhabitants of Winter are able to be sexually active only once a month; their genders are fluid, and, mostly, perceived to be unimportant. And yet throughout the book, the characters, androgynous or not, are accorded male pronouns, because Genly Ai is himself male, and he is narrating. The female is only slightly – very slightly – privileged in that ones’ heirs are children you have given birth to, not children you have sired. And it is possible, in this world, to do both over the course of your lifetime.

The idea of such fluctuating androgyny is fascinating. But a fascinating idea does not make an interesting novel, and that’s what I was hoping for. There is little in the way of a plot, and not much more in the way of character development. The story is also not told linearly, which is sometimes a good way to keep the reader’s interest, but in this case, it irritated me. The chapters seemed disjoint, difficult to keep track of, and in some cases, completely irrelevant to the story. These chapters were the ones in which the ideas of androgyny were explored the most, and while I was intrigued by the world that Le Guin was trying to build, I was frustrated that she didn’t seem able to work the ideas into the plot. It was, if you like, the difference between knitting a design into your material as you go, or trying to attach the design afterwards. Sometimes the latter works. In this case, I don’t think it did.

On a more feminist, political level, I could see what Le Guin was doing, I think. It was fascinating in parts. It was certainly intriguing to try to see through the eyes of a male character, who was himself trying to see through the eyes of an ungendered – or multi-gendered – population. He failed, ultimately, and, in a sense, so did I. I found it difficult to see this book as a feminist critique of gender roles and relations, and enjoy it wholeheartedly for that reason, because what I wanted to see it as was a good story, and that’s not what it was.

Going off on a slight tangent, I occasionally give books to J to read, not because he’ll like them – he won’t – but because I think they’re worth reading just once, either to be able to discuss them, or to think about the ideas they raise. I suspect that The Left Hand of Darkness was something like that, for me. I’m glad to have read it once, but wouldn’t read it again. I certainly wouldn’t buy it.

On the other hand, I’ve read multiple reviews of the book – both before and after I read it – and what I would say is this: The Left Hand of Darkness is a book that speaks to everybody differently. Very differently, in fact, because I seem to be the only person who hasn’t been thrilled by some aspect of it. I appreciate it for what it is, but don’t like it. Usually I’d be able to say, well, such-and-such a group might not like this, but if you’re looking for some other kind of a book, you’d probably like this one. In this case, I don’t know. I honestly can’t say. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which was non-linear, and feminist, and concerned with gender relations in a place like the world we know, but different, and yet The Handmaid’s Tale was just that – a tale. I could enjoy it on multiple levels. The Left Hand of Darkness, I couldn’t really enjoy on any level. Perhaps I should say that this is a book for people who like books you can write essays about, who can enjoy non-linearity, and who can ignore the lack of a story, all at the same time. As it turns out, I can’t do all three at once.

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