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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness gets lauded for doing really cool stuff with gender. That wasn’t my experience of the book. It’s still a really good book.

An open book, a white ceramic mug, and a blanket rest upon a couch.
Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Ace Books, 2000. Originally published in 1969.

This book had a lot of hype. It’s hyped as one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s best novels, and Le Guin is hyped as one of science fiction’s best writers. I have read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and that book blew my world, which furthered my internal hype and expectations for this book.

This was a good book. Did my expectations for it decrease my satisfaction of it? Yes. Expectations screw with the reading process. Did my high expectations ruin the book? No, it’s still a good book.

The Left Hand of Darkness gets lauded for doing really cool stuff with gender. That wasn’t my experience of the book. Two thoughts on that.

Thought the first. This was first published in 1969. No doubt, by 1969 standards, this book did really cool stuff with gender. However, I read The Left Hand of Darkness after already having read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Ancillary Justice. Does The Left Hand of Darkness fuck with gender? Yeah. Is it cool? Yeah. Is it mind-rearranging? Not quite, at least for who I am right now.

Thought the second. Although The Left Hand of Darkness does some pretty mischievous stuff with gender, I don’t think gender is the primary theme of the book. I found this book contained more touching, profound commentary on loyalty and betrayal and patriotism and nationalism than it did on sex and gender. Example in point:

No doubt that Karhidish cooking was better than Orgota. As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that, when I had asked him if he hated Orgoreyn; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide. …” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

So, yeah. I might have been reading this book looking for apples when I should have been looking for pears. Still a good book. I am definitely going to read more Ursula K. Le Guin. But I’d recommend The Dispossessed as a starting point for Le Guin newbies. That novel’s got an anarchist-communist society on the moon. Hard to go wrong with that.