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Cannonball Read V: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

By Arya of Winterfell | Book Reviews | December 12, 2013 | Comments ()


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In our “No Commitment Book Club” we don’t necessarily take turns with selecting the next book but rather seem to conclude our meetings with a discussion towards deciding on the next pick. We agreed something in the Sci-Fi genre might attract a different group than what was becoming our usual group. Early on, we’d all appreciated that this type of book club seemed to guarantee varied, refreshing meetings as the group was different every time and free of the pitfall of book clubs with consistent attendees where you just end up with an evening of catching up and socializing, versus focused conversation about the book. My husband put forward Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold and we did end up collecting a different group for the evening and the discussion was fantastic, while my personal opinion of the book fell far short of that and such that I won’t even be reviewing it as part of my Cannonball challenge.

The purpose of this anecdote is that this Sci-Fi book club is where I was fervently recommended to read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness by a reader who shared my joy of contemplative fiction and wanted to contribute to my personal growth as a reader departing from my prejudice of the genre (see my book review of The Rook).

The Left Hand of Darkness was a wildly imaginative and not overly complex read well within the Sci-Fi scene; it takes place in the fictional Hainish universe, afterall. I loved it. It was a page-turner for me; even in the lead-up to a busy event with my work, I found the time to read this while on loan from the library.

There were many layers of worthwhile contemplation in The Left Hand of Darkness. LeGuin explores the depths and limits of friendship/companionship and includes fascinating social and political commentary.

Karhidish psychologists were ingenious with drugs, hypnosis, and various other mental therapies. I asked if these two psychopaths could not be cured. “Cured?” Goss said. “Would you cure a singer of his voice?”

Throughout the novel, the smallest of interactions carried such weight of meaning.

Citizens are neither female nor male: they have gender identities and sexual urges only once a month. These conditions have affected the ways that civilizations on Winter have developed, with the most notable effect being that there has never been a war on the planet.

Of course, I was fascinated with the societal ramifications of the fact that the inhabitants of the planet Gethen are neither male nor female and enter into Kemmer, a period where sexual urges and gender identities are exhibited, only once monthly. I was impressed with LeGuin’s management of themes of sexuality without tiresome or irksome scenes of the “bodice ripper” variety which I’ve (wrongly) stereotyped as a personally repellent feature of the sci-fi genre. (That said, Iron Duke is sitting on our coffee table now. Groan.)

“They are not excluded from society, but they are tolerated with some disdain, as homosexuals are in many bisexual societies. The Karhidish slang for them is halfdeads. They are sterile.”

So much to unpack there. I bookmarked several passages like this as I’m sure other readers of LeGuin are apt to: “Completely embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion as an alien world. The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.”

Hands down, I enjoyed it more than Falling Free, the book that led to this lucky recommendation.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and watch for info about Cannonball Read SIX on the group blog, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. For more of Arya of Winterfell’s reviews, check out her blog, Time to Read.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Drake

    One of my favorite books. And a nicely written review.

  • Amanda

    Please don't judge Lois McMaster Bujold by Falling Free! It's far and away her weakest book. Try Shards of Honor or The Curse of Chalion, both of which are delightful.

    Ursula K. Le Guin is the best. I loved the friendship between Genly Ai and Estraven, once Genly Ai stopped being an idiot about Estraven.

  • fuzzwuzz

    I read this book for the first time just recently. Loved it. Even more so now that I've had time to digest it. And I agree, it's quite a layered story. Le Guin is great at writing smaller books that ooze richness. Well, smaller compared to the usual door-stoppers in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, haha.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Absolutely. The compactness of her prose amazes me - she is lyrical and profound, with so few words. And she manages to craft stories that are entertainig as well. She is one of my absolute favorite authors.

  • kinoumenthe

    Well, I really don't think Bujold is the way to go for contemplative SF. (Not the Vorkosigan saga anyway. Chalion or Sharing knife would be closer to that, but they're fantasy, not SF. And she doesn't do bodice ripping. Pfew.)
    If you liked The Left Hand Of Darkness, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is a very recent piece of SF and an extraordinary novel on self and gender (among other things, it's also great space op, imho). I couldn't help thinking about The Left Hand when I was reading it. (for spoilery reasons)

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