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The Left Hand of Darkness is the first novel on this list from a female author. And while it’s no secret that women are severely underrepresented in the world of Science Fiction, the ones that are (such as Ursula K. LeGuin) are so good that we often forget that they make up such a small portion of the celebrated authors in the field. Some critics have called ‘Darkness‘ a “Feminist” science fiction novel, but I think that label does a disservice to LeGuin and women writers in general. Just because the book tackles complex issues of gender identity, sexuality and politics, doesn’t mean that it should get saddled with such a politically charged label – and people’s attempts to co-opt the book to support their own agendas or worldview are missing the point entirely. The deftness of LeGuin’s writing is not in its ability to make grand pronouncements on the inherent evils of a male dominated culture, but in its capacity to pose fascinating questions on the nature of gender and its role in society so that we can examine them ourselves and reach our own conclusions.
The Left Hand of Darkness Summary: Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, the novel takes place on the planet ‘Winter’, a cold, frozen world that is in the middle of an ice age. The citizens of Winter share a unique physiological trait – they are genderless and androgynous for all but two days out of each month, during which they become either male or female depending upon the partner that they are coupling with. In essence, residents of the planet contain the makeup of both sexes, leading to a society in which problems resulting from gender differences are virtually unheard of. But while male sexual dominance and female dependence may be unknown in their culture, there is still room for many other conflicting human characteristics such as love, jealousy, power and politics. And while war is also something that is rarely (if ever) seen on Winter, two of the planet’s largest countries seem to be on the brink of some sort of conflict at the beginning of the book.
Although the book is told from a few different points of view, the story mainly unfolds through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth who is sent to try and bring the planet of Winter into the organization of planets known as the Ekumen. Genly faces many obstacles upon arriving in the kingdom of Karhide and is ultimately saved by the Prime Minister Estraven. The political intrigue surrounding a piece of disputed territory causes Estraven to be sent into exile. After resistance from the King of Karhide, Genrly goes to the neighboring territory of Orgoreyn to plead with its leaders for help. Meeting up with Estraven again who is living in exile, the pair make a harrowing journey across ice and snow to return to Karhide. During the journey, Genly becomes close with Estraven and learns many things about his companion, including a period of “Kemmer” in which Estraven briefly becomes a woman, which helps him understand the true nature of the androgynous people of the planet.
The Left Hand of Darkness Review: While the narrative gets bogged down a little in the middle (and during their interminable trek across the barren ice), the unique nature of the characters and conflicts keep the book moving along at a brisk pace. The fact of whether or not the planet becomes a part of the Ekumen is secondary to the fate of the characters and how they reflect the society that they are a part of. For me, it wasn’t until after I had finished the novel that I started pondering some of the larger questions and themes that the book presented – and that is a good thing in my opinion. LeGuin’s ability to paint a believable portrait of a society in which all members are both male AND female draws the reader in so deeply that they don’t even realize the staggering implications of what it means for a culture to not have a clearly defined barrier between genders. It is this ability that makes her not merely a great “Feminist” science fiction writer, but one of the best overall Science Fiction authors writing today.