THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (Ursula K Le Guin)

The-Left-Hand-of-Darkness-by-Ursula-K-Le-GuinThis is an intensely political book, on a number of different levels, and the influences of the 1960s, when it was written, are clear to see. This novel is definitely at the intelligent end of the genre. Plenty of themes are packed inside these 250 pages.The creation of the frozen world of Winter and its two main bizarre nations – one an Alice-in-Wonderland kingdom and the other a kind of Soviet police state – is hugely impressive. The central feature of the book – the bisexual nature of the planet’s population – is fascinating.

The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious.

But these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers. Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet’s cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.

Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen’s past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology.

The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai’s bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties. Estraven’s characterization is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light. This novel throws up so many interesting ideas that I occasionally felt a little short-changed that the author didn’t spend more time on them. This is one of those instances when you can actually say: “I wish it was longer.” (Oh please…I’m still referring to the book!)

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