The Left Hand of Darkness is the first book I’ve read of Le Guin, and it is great. Although it surely is SF, big parts of it read more like a fantasy adventure novel about friendship, set on a barren world – so don’t expect laser guns, giant AI-cores or wormholes. It combines a sense of wonder with some original ideas, an emotional ending, and, at times, beautiful prose.
The book very much has its own voice, but I don’t feel it to be extraordinary. It could have been so, had Le Guin fixed 3 quibbles…
First, it could have explored in more detail the consequences of living and evolving on an arctic world. Le Guin manages to do so to a certain extent, but I have the feeling there could have been a lot more.
Secondly, Le Guin should have been able to truly write about the gender neutral inhabitants of Gethen as really gender neutral. As the novel is, they come across too much as just men without a sex drive 4/5th of the time. Their feminine and neutral sides aren’t explored that much, or even stereotypical – like the fact that they see no shame in crying. A couple of times it is simply stated that this or that in their society is a result of them not being “men” (there is no war), but that isn’t really felt in most of their actions (there is murder due to political rivalry), nor in the structures of the societies Le Guin created. As such, this is not the important gender book some claim it to be, not even seen in its historical context, but I can understand why it would seem that way from a superficial point of view. On the other hand, I guess I’m sure the book may have had some effects back in the days, opening up some readers to other ways of thinking, and as such contributed to the discussions society was having, and is still having right now.
Finally, some of the characters could have been fleshed out a whole lot more, such as the king, Tibi and Obsle. This would have enhanced the emotional impact of the book even more.
Had Le Guin invested a bit more in the characters and the world-building, and put some more thought and research in the links between climate, biology, gender and society, she could have pulled of a book that would have been extraordinary, and at the same time 50, 100 or even 200% longer – more good stuff to indulge in as a reader. If she had done so, TLHOD would have been the true Arctic brother of the first book of Dune.
After 150 pages in, I kind of settled on ‘this as a good book’, but the emotions I felt at the end convinced me that it is actually excellent. TLHOD is a highly enjoyable, intriguing read, and very much recommended. A classic indeed, and one that has aged very well.
originally written on the 19th of January, 2015