Classic Lit Challenge, Episode 1: The Left Hand of Darkness

It’s been a rough couple of months in my world. To deal with the turbulence I’ve turned inside myself. I pulled back from the real world, mainly because I can’t take the triviality, the overload. That might not make sense, but there’s not much else to explain.

I need some other focus. Television and movies aren’t cutting it right now. Too much crap floating around. And modern books are leaving me hungry for quality. So I’m starting on a self-imposed diet of classic works of literature.

First up, Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

As a speculative fiction fan and writer, I am slightly ashamed to say that I’ve never read anything by LeGuin before. She’s a master of the genre. I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness blindly (knowing nothing about it at all), and read it blindly, not even glancing at the back cover copy. Not too far into the book I understood why she’s so revered.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a (male) humanoid emissary to the icy world of Gethen. For Gethen’s humanoid inhabitants, he is their first contact with extraterrestrial life. (Quick recap, which I had to Google to understand: In LeGuin’s fictional universe, there are several humanoid species seeded throughout the universe. These interrelated species are slowly reconnecting with each other).

Gethen is a world unlike any other that Genly Ai has encountered. The people of Gethen are neither male nor female. They are ambisexual, dimorphic. For a few days every month they go into heat, and they become either male or female, depending on their partner, and they mate. when they are not in heat, they revert to an androgynous state.

The story follows Genly Ai’s attempt to understand this strange species of human, as well as influence them to open themselves up to the wider federation of humanoids throughout the universe.

Okay. That’s a lot of explanation on my part, but it’s important to relay the gist of this complicated story. LeGuin does an excellent job of merging storytelling and exposition. She parcels out this info as needed.

All in all I loved this book. The best sci-fi relays a wholly alien experience in a human way. She did this expertly. I did a little research into this book and I discovered that LeGuin is considered a proponent of feminist sci-fi. Unfortunately a lot of well-meaning writers use their platform to preach instead of tell a story. LeGuin did not fall into that trap. Instead she presented the people of Gethen, who were neither male nor female, as being wholly human and relatable. If there was a soapbox, it was well camouflaged.

What surprised me most about The Left Hand of Darkness was that it was written in 1969. Sci-fi tends to comment on the issues of the day. That leaves many sci-fi books feeling dated. Nothing about this book seemed dated. I could have believed it was written last year. LeGuin crafted a timeless tale.

A couple of things I didn’t like (because, alas, no book is perfect): there were tons of wholly alien names thrown around–I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Also, she tends to overdescribe. This was really noticeable during a sequence where two characters were traveling over a snowy landscape. There are only so many interesting ways to describe a snow-covered wilderness.

Next up for my reading challenge is a total 180.