Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

This was picked as part of my 2017 Discoverability Challenge. I wanted to read things I hadn’t read before, and picked ‘classics’. I’ve already managed to pick up Never Let Me Go, and I’ve got The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley on my pile as well.

left hand coverGenly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle.

They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . .

The Left Hand of Darkness is a short book, but it’s packed full of tangles. It’s something you read once and then need to read again, both for the plot and the intertwining of the two stories and points of view, and for the language and references once you know more about the world. It’s strange and politically detailed, with a myriad of different cultures and views that are alien to us as well as to Ai, who’s there to observe. It’s also intricately laced with details about society, kemmer, the rituals and traditions, the food…and the world itself, Winter, is as alien as the people and viewpoints are. The details are wonderful: the winter doors are ten feet up because of the snowdrifts, and Ai is constantly cold in a society that exists between two glaciers.

The story is strange, told from both Ai and Estraven’s points of view, giving us a strange duality on events. I ended up seeing Ai as an alien, as the society does; Winter was strange, yes, but Ai’s observing position and knowledge of his own strangeness gave it a reserve. The plot is interesting, and intricate; I loved the ice-field and their strange, eerie journey.

Some period gender references that have not aged well; describing something as “womanish” doesn’t sit well with me, considering I have no such construct in my head – and it’s something my father says, which doesn’t endear it. But it’s a minor point – just something that stuck out to me. I also found it interesting to consider how the same book would have been written in the modern era – and it would have been very, very different. It’s a book that’s made me think about my own writing, and my own method of storytelling; not that I am likely to change immediately, but…it’s something that will help me grow, I think.

So. Odd, eerie, intricate, detailed, political and alien. Definitely a book worth reading once in a lifetime.