Samathy Barratt

Home About Blog Contact Projects Speaking Photography Mastodon Twitter

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

My fiancé bought me The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K Le Guin because they though I'd be interested in the world where the people are neuter - not male, or female. That is, unfortunately, the main thing this book seems to be written to discuss.

I had some trouble with the novel. Although the world it builds is interesting, I found that the author spends waaaay too much time describing the world and the people in it and not enough on the actual story of the characters. We follow two characters, Genly 'The Envoy' Ai, a 'terran' like us and Therem 'Estraven' Harth rem ir Estraven, a Gethenian.

For more than half the book I felt like there was a good story just hiding inside a cocoon of nonsense that seemed entirely detached from the main characters.

I had absolutely no idea why the characters were doing what they were doing. Which I think can be attributed to the writing style for the first half of the book. For every 4 paragraphs, 3 of them are about the world around the character and idle thoughts the character is having, the 4th paragraph actually progresses the story. This lead me, I think, to tune out things that might have been important or just forget what was actually happening during the 3 or more paragraphs of unrelated stuff.

It doesn't help that this book uses sci-fi words that are very of it's time. Published in 1969, the words for things, places, people, language are just very...nonsensical. I don't mean that terrible harshly, its just how sci-fi and fantasy books from this period are. The words native to the world in the book are much less similar to words we see around us in regular real life than in a more modern fantasy or sci-fi book. It makes it quite difficult to follow because my brain does not seem to latch on to a word or a place and assign it meaning, because they read like nonsense.

I constantly wondered what was actually meant to be happening, why are they doing this, what does this series of thoughts have to do with the story. I misunderstood who characters were, failed to see why this event did anything to progress the story that I couldn't see.

I seriously do wonder if I was just not reading the book correctly, if there really was more than just nonsense going on in that first half.

The book also seems a bit obsessed with the sex lives of the people living on the world of Winter. Constantly bringing up the neuter nature of the Gethenians and exploring their 'kemmer' period. It really comes across as very weird since the sex lives of the inhabitants does not seem to be in any way relevant to the tale of The Envoy and Estraven. When I say 'constantly' I mean it felt like I was reading about someone's sex life every page or so.

Sure, its an interesting world ( and it really is! ), but the book often feels like the author had the idea for the world and kept suddenly remembering that they have to put a story in there somewhere. We end up with like 90% world building and weird obsession with 'kemmer' with a story buried in nonsense words.

The book improves dramatically about 60% through. The author actually starts telling the story. We go on a harrowing adventure where Genly Ai gets persecuted and sent to a work-camp, Estraven rescues him and together they journey across the ice, bonding as they go. Honestly, you could start the book at Genly Ai's arrival in Orgoreyn and you won't have missed much.

This bit I did enjoy. We explore the difference between the Terran Mr Ai, and the Genthenian Therem 'Estraven' Harth. It highlights how they are similar, and how they're different. We watch as they grow closer through their struggles, but we also get to understand more about each individual as they go through difficulties alone ( very alone ). I wanted more of this bit.

In summary, The Left Hand of Darkness is weirdly obsessed with sex, spends too much time on world building but gets good about 60% through.

I think I'd like to re-read The Left Hand of Darkness at some point, because I really think I'm missing something.

All Posts