The Left Hand of Meh

Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is fêted as a feminist Sci Fi masterpiece. It ended up as our Book group choice because it was on one of those lists of books you should read before you hit 50/ die/ spontaneously combust. As I don’t tend to read much Sci Fi, but I’ve met many die-hard Ursula Le Guin fans, and eagerly awaited the postman’s van bearing my parcel. My anticipation even withstood my seeing the cover – the cheesiest (or should that be cheeseclothiest) paper-based evocation of tie-dye and joysticks I’ve ever seen.

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In a nutshell, Le Guin tells the tale of Genly Ai, an envoy sent from a distant world to observe and build links with the people of the winter world Gethen. We see this alien world through his eyes, as he grapples to understand the androgynous population who live a neuter existence until the peak of their sexual cycle when they can temporarily become male or female. Like him, we flounder at the complexities of the political dynamics of the planet, and navigate as best we can the perplexing nuances of communication and socialization of the Gethenians.

Despite the subject matter, I found the novel remarkably difficult to engage with. Had I not had to read it in time for my book group meeting I could well have given up – and at 304 pages in my edition it’s not exactly a door-stopper! Maybe it was all too alien. I couldn’t imagine the characters in my mind’s eye, nor the setting of the story, until well into the novel when Genli Ai and his companion, Estraven, a disgraced and exiled politician, embark on a perilous journey across the ice and snow. I did begin to care more about the characters during their pilgrimage across the ice, but overall, the novel left me cold.

I could wax lyrical about Le Guin’s remarkably prescient exploration of gender and identity in the novel which is astonishing considering that the novel was written in 1969. However, what I’m most surprised at is that considering the subject matter and the themes explored, it could end up being such a paint-peelingly boring read. To be fair, we did find a lot to pick over and discuss in our book group, but I won’t be rushing out to buy another Ursula Le Guin novel anytime soon.

Have you read this Sci Fi classic? If you really rated it, feel free to shoot me down, but I’d love it if you could shed some light on what exactly am I missing!

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