The Dim-Post

July 10, 2012

The Left Hand of Darkness

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 8:54 am

I’ve been reading a bit of classic science-fiction recently, and I just finished Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Which is a very good book. It’s about a representative of an interplanetary culture making contact with an isolated planet of humans which are all hermaphrodites. (There are no sex scenes).

I thought I’d read it before when I was about nineteen, and I remember loftily dismissing it as ‘feminist science-fiction’. What’s odd is that I read The Handmaid’s Tale’ at about the same age, loved it and went around recommending it to people. Anyway, I didn’t remember anything about The Left Hand of Darkness. Maybe I didn’t even read it? The back cover of the edition I bought last week describes it as a feminist classic, maybe that riled my nineteen year old blood? (Or maybe I just skimmed through looking for sex scenes?)

Although I don’t think the book is a feminist text. It’s about gender, sure – but that’s because the book is about identity, and gender is a huge component of that. It’s about relationships, nationalism and patriotism as much as gender, if not more. According to Wikipedia the book will be made into a film (eh) and a video-game, which makes me smile every time I think about it. (‘You are in estrus. Find a compatible mate in ninety seconds, or restart the level.’)

21 Comments »

  1. I loved “Left Hand of Darkness” and the way that it could make one think about gender but do so while allowing for Winter’s culture to have been equally influenced by adaptation to a harsh climate. Ursula LeGuin is such a fantastic writer.

    Comment by Grace — July 10, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  2. Read any Gwyneth Jones? Similar flair and imagination with a lot of Joanna Russ’ passion and wit.

    Comment by Rhinocrates — July 10, 2012 @ 9:43 am

  3. My only problem with the book is that whenever I try and discuss it I stumble over the names. When you read you don’t realise that everything is impossible to pronounce right.

    Comment by alex — July 10, 2012 @ 9:45 am

  4. Having read a good number of Le Guin’s books, I believe that skipping through any of them looking for sex scenes would be doomed to failure.

    I still have the Pan editions of City of Illusions, the Lathe of Heaven and the Dispossessed that I nicked from a friend’s parents back in the 70s. The Dispossessed is probably a lot less clever than I thought it was as an enthusiastic teenage anarchist, but those three and Left Hand of Darkness are all great SF.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — July 10, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  5. How is Infinite Jest going?

    Comment by someone — July 10, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  6. iirc Le Guin explores sex on Gethen in the story “Coming of Age in Karhide”.

    Comment by bradluen — July 10, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

  7. I read the Handmaid’s Tale aged about 11 and it scared the shit out of me. To this day I still fear that someday the government will come and take me away from being a political dissident and put me in a nuclear facility where I’ll have to work until my nose falls off.

    Comment by Amy — July 10, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  8. “Although I don’t think the book is a feminist text.”

    I shudder to think what a feminist text, as defined by Danyl F. McLaughlin, internet-based male expert on feminism, would look like.

    Comment by Hugh — July 10, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

  9. How is Infinite Jest going?

    Slowly.

    I shudder to think what a feminist text, as defined by Danyl F. McLaughlin, internet-based male expert on feminism, would look like.

    I’ll go out on a huge limb and assert that Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist text.

    Comment by danylmc — July 10, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  10. My only problem with the book is that whenever I try and discuss it I stumble over the names.

    Interesting point. The “suspension of disbelief” necessary to engage the reader in fantasy and sf narratives needs some sort of thread of normality. I understand George R. R. Martin’s use of almost-normal names like “Eddard” and “Petyr” for his characters and the decision by the costume designers for Battlestar Galactica to use styles kinda sorta like our own today.

    On the other hand, H. P. Lovecraft deliberately used unpronouncable names such as “Cthulhu” in order to convey the utter inhumanity of his monsters.

    Comment by Rhinocrates — July 10, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

  11. I believe Cthulhu is pronounced “Gerry Bownlee”.

    Comment by Gregor W — July 10, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

  12. I’ve not read this book, I did read another of her books, The Dispossessed, which had strong feminist themes but tended more towards Marxism. I regularly re-read it in fact.

    Comment by Paul Williams (@psbwilliams) — July 10, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

  13. On the other hand, H. P. Lovecraft deliberately used unpronouncable names such as “Cthulhu” in order to convey the utter inhumanity of his monsters.

    I believe Cthulhu is pronounced “Gerry Bownlee”.

    Or, you could ask the man himself for his preferred pronunciation…

    http://thedeadauthorspodcast.libsyn.com/webpage/appendix-b-friederich-nietzsche-and-h-p-lovecraft-featuring-james-adomian-and-paul-scheer

    Comment by Phil — July 10, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  14. @12

    Ha! Cthulhu should have more grandeur. Brownlee, alas, is too banal – but then could banality be the true essence of evil? Nice podcast anyway.

    Comment by Rhinocrates — July 10, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

  15. I understand George R. R. Martin’s use of almost-normal names like “Eddard” and “Petyr” for his characters . . .

    Really? I thought it’s because he wanted to make his books as silly as he possibly could.

    Comment by Jake — July 10, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

  16. “The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. … Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, unpredictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

    That we shall die.”

    Yes, There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. … The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

    Comment by sheesh — July 10, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  17. Really? I thought it’s because he wanted to make his books as silly as he possibly could.

    Glass half full/empty? A story with dragons and wights is already going to be fantastic, so a character named “Edward” in a world with a history clearly divergent to our own will be more jarring to the reader in such a context than one named “Eddard” whereas one named “Morgoth” or whatever would really be estranging. Other names such as “Sandor” seem odd to English speakers, but are real eastern European names. It’s a matter of judging the appropriate degrees of strangeness.

    Comment by Rhinocrates — July 10, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

  18. Nope, The Dispossessed is still a masterpiece. Along with The Left Hand of Darkness, I recommend it to people on an almost weekly basis.

    Comment by Frankie — July 11, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

  19. Just read Left Hand of Darkness myself. It’s good shit. I also wouldn’t describe it as a feminist classic, but I’ll admit that’s no specialty of mine. I’d describe it as LeGuin brilliance, forcing you to think at every point about things. Gender is one of those things in that book. But it also seemed like the most mystical of her books, and not in a bad way.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — July 11, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

  20. Oh Hugh @8, please, please do tell us how you, with your superior skills as an enlightened internet-based male expert on feminism, define a feminist text. You and your lovely hat.

    Comment by Percy — July 11, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

  21. I recommend Le Guin’s essay “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” in Dancing at the Edge of the World. It’s an essay she wrote about a decade after The Left Hand of Darkness and then updated after about another decade. Mostly she’s talking about her choice of pronouns in the book, but it’s more generally an interesting view on whether she feels it’s a feminist classic.

    Comment by Anita — July 12, 2012 @ 9:27 pm


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