34. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) 256 p.

may as well have been a fictional encyclopedia

This is not really a novel. Rather, it’s an example of science fiction being used to explore various ideas about society, politics, and most especially gender. It does all of this quite well, but unfortunately falls flat in the story-telling part.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the world of Gethen, a planet that is semi-arctic even at the height of summer, and the inhabitants of which are hermaphrodites. For a brief period of each month they enter a sexual phase in which they can become either male or female, and either bear or sire children. For the rest of the month they are sexless. The people of this world are essentially of a single gender, and Le Guin spends most of the book examining how this would affect culture: a lack of aggression and nationalism, strange concepts of shame and honour, different technological processes and religions etc.

The story involves an envoy being sent from Earth to invite Gethen to join an interplanetary federation, but it is here that the book fails. The story is clearly a mere vehicle to examine the world, and nothing more than that. While Le Guin is certainly a masterful world-builder (and gets extra points for creating an alien planet with multiple nations on it), the story lacks any flair or excitement, even as the narrator goes through a war zone or is sent to a prison camp. In fact, I was very much reminded of the feeling I had throughout A Wizard of Earthsea, which was one of mild boredom. Occassionally the chapters are intersparsed with self-contained Gethenian folk tales or legends, and these were somewhat more interesting than the rest of the book; Le Guin’s strength is certainly fantasy rather than sci-fi. Overall, this book was a dull disappointment, and not reccomended.

Books: 34/50
Pages: 10, 645