tumblr_m8o3y6cSEy1qzcqsfo1_500I need your help understanding The Left Hand of Darkness. I was almost indifferent to it, but it has a huge GoodReads average: 4.02 from 42,943 ratings. As Shannon from Giraffe Days put it on her own review:

When you dislike a popular book, a canonised book – a “masterpiece” and an “instant classic”, according to other reviewers – naturally part of you wonders whether you’re just not getting it, whether you’re not bright enough or clued-in enough, or whether you’re placing unnecessary or unfair demands and expectations on it.

(I wish I could just copy/paste her entire review because that’s also pretty much how I felt about the book.)

One of my biggest issues was not caring about any of the characters. Have the feeling characterization wasn’t a priority for Le Guin (who was Genly Ai, our main character? What really motivated him? What was his life before arriving in Winter?), preferring instead to focus on world-building. Fair enough, but apart from describing the planet and their mostly asexual people, Le Guin is never though-provoking about the implications of that asexuality in their civilization or how someone like Genly, an audience-surrogate, faces it.

The whole topic of gender politics, for which the book is so acclaimed, ends up reduced to a few isolated comments by Genly (“I don’t know. They [women] don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn’t that they’re stupid.”) and one relevant conversation between him and the native Estraven. This lasts for a couple of pages and ends up not solving the obvious sexual tension between them. Was there something more I missed?

We often see the story from Estraven’s point of view, which would be a great opportunity to see the world (and Genly) from a non-gendered mind, but apart from a couple of cultural misunderstandings you could also find on Earth, nothing more stands out. Also, although Genly has been on that planet for two years, we never get any real insight into his own sexual desires, which could have been really interesting and though-provoking.

It’s almost as if Le Guin, having shocked everyone in 1969 by having penned a sci-fi novel set on a non-gendered world, felt it was enough to stir things up and decided not to risk going deeper. I felt the book dated, but the 4.02 rating is definitely not from the 60s and 70s, so I can’t shake the feeling I’m missing something!

Another thing that I’d like your input on is the alliance that Genly represents. Chris called it a “perfectly anti-imperialist empire without any will to power at all”. This also nagged at me. I swear that up to the last pages I was expecting a big twist, but nope, Genly did come in peace, cynical me!


Other thoughts: A Striped Armchair, Opinions of a Wolf, The Wertzone, Shelf Love, Neth Space, Books Under the Skin, Gasping for the Wind, James Reads Books, The Book Smugglers, conceptual fiction (yours?)