Reading: The Left Hand of Darkness

c07b4c16-a946-4064-8b55-06393d3e5b0aimg100Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Series: Hainish Cycle, book 4
Genre: classic science fiction

This year I set myself a goal of reading some classic fantasy and science fiction works. When I was in Amsterdam in the spring I picked up a copy of “The Left Hand of Darkness”. I have tried starting it three times now. I decided that if I am going to motivate myself to reading it I properly need to write it about it as I read.

I should be up front about this. I find this book really hard to motive myself to sit down and read. I mostly read rather fast paced books, because those are the books that suck me in and keep me reading. So I am finding the style really hard to get though. It feels a lot like reading for an assignment. I have read the Earthsea series by Le Guin as a teenager and I remember really liking it. But I have not read anything by her as an adult (as far as I can remember anyway).

These are my goodreads updates:*

Chapter 1

Page 6: There are crazy amounts of descriptions in here.

Chapter 4

Page 37: I find myself quite sceptical of this book. I’m not quite sure why. There are weird little moral stories in between the chapters. I guess they are meant to be myths of the society.

Chapter 5

Page 39: It’s interesting that the protagonist manages to be a sexist ass even on a planet with hermaphrodite humans.
I am not sure I can read this. I want to punch the protagonist in the teeth. “They behaved like animals in that respect – like women”. Gah!

Page 41: In many ways the age of the book shows, not only in technology but also in the anthropological idea of how the society works and why. To me that seems rather dated.

Page 42: Ok I’m almost live blogging this book. For a book celebrated for doing interesting things with gender, it sure makes a lot of gendered assumptions about society. Like this thing with the tempo of the land cars. Apparently a society of hermaphrodites drives slowly and do not gets the concept of being in a hurry. Why would that be the case? The narrative makes the assumption that a love of speed and speediest is a male attribute.

This is where I put the post up. I will keep updating my goodreads while I read and copying to here and perhaps expanding a bit on what I write.

Page 48: Finally a bit that is not actively annoying. The protagonist is in a convert (of the Fartellers) in the mountains. The conversations and some of the contemplations are interesting.

Page 51: The hermaphrodite society sees gendered bodies as perverse, as abnormal. The gendered are sterile on this planet, which I find is an interesting choice. Because it lends validity to the socity’s view – not that everyone needs to be fertile to have value, but it does indicate that it isn’t the body’s default state. This is not a story that for me promotes immersion, rather I find myself constantly reflecting on the author’s choices.
The story contemplates normality quite a bit. It thinks about society’s view on gender, sexuality and people who are neuroatypical .

Page 56: As I understand the religion of the Weaver, it’s all about removing one’s own agency. “I will change with it [the world], but I will not change it” as one of the members says.

Page 57: What is with SF&F writers and way too long time spans. the current history of the human civilization is somewhere between 4000 and 6000 years old. that’s from early agriculture to today’s space age. So a religion that is 13.000 years old, I find it hard to take serious.

Chapter 6

Page 63: In this chapter we change PoV to Estraven, the x-prime minister, and now follow a native. It seems wrong that he also only use he as pronoun just like our gendered protagonist. I really can’t keep the names strait.

Page 66: This is very much about immigration and class and bureaucracy. About navigating the maze that is immigration.

Page 69: There is a long dialog here between some nobles and I do not understand what they are talking about. I wonder if I am meant to feel that way.

Page 71:  I find that I finally care what will happen in the story. I now actually want to read on. Most other books I read do not take 70 pages to get me to a point where I want to read the story. What has it taken to peek my interest, quite simply, the second PoV is written from within the culture, it is not telling the story of the other. the first pov it’s constantly pointing out the otherness, the wrongness of the people of winter. how their lack of gender makes them wrong, not human and weird

Chapter 7

Page 74: We are back at the first PoV and he now explains what he has learned about how their sexuality works. It is exposition and I think it works. It is quite an interesting concept. I wonder if we can actually count the world of Winter as humans – their physiology is so different from ours i many regards.

Page 75: He goes on to talk about the social implications of their sexuality. I am guessing that this is properly where people start to get excited about this book. The idea that ask of the adult population can become pregnant is an interesting one. That the duality of humanity where we constantly think in two genders and that colors our thinking in other matters where we constantly divide people into two groups – the week/strong, the protected/protecting etc. However I do not see how that kind of power dynamics would not emerge in all kinds of other situations, that has nothing to do with sexuality or gender. Within the narrative we see the relationship between the king and the prime minister is just such power dynamic; the powerful/the overpowered. But it is an interesting thought nonetheless.

Page 76: The idea that no mammals rape each other than humans is quite antiquated. Sexual readiness does not equal consent… The very idea “wet and ready” (as a token of consent in pop culture) that is just what is going on with their physiology. Just because you want to have sex with someone, does not mean you want to have sex with the partner available at the time. Especially combined with the idea of vowed monogamy it seems a bit odd and off. What if their cycles comes out of sync, then they can never have sex. The same goes for the idea that just because there is no sexdrive the rest of the month, then they are not driven by desires stemming from the part of the month where they are sexually active. I of course do not know how their brain chemistry works  but from what we have learned of the people on Winter so far it would seem that they are very much romantically attracted to their partners. Some of the ideas in this chapter seems a bit 60s summer of love-ish to me. But it is interesting reading nonetheless.

Page 77: On winter there are no wars. the protagonist expands that with the lack of sexual frustration. I find that to be a very shallow explanation. in modern times we do not fight wars to secure mattress rather over prestige, ressources, land, power. clearly things this world has. it kind of Sims that only male leaders would start wars, doesn’t it?

Page 78: Good he acknowledges that there could be other explanations for the lack of war
Oh the protagonist is a woman. that makes some of the early comments weirder! I was seriously surprised by this. I am not sure I find that consistant with the way she described things earlier on.

Chapter 8

Page 80: I find it interesting to have a world without war, but technological progress, but no major social changes, it seems unlikely out at least weird. She when goes on to describe how the harsh climate works as a stabilizer because it punishes large steps away from the norm.
I find that I really want to discuss this book. I wonder if there is a horses topic about it somewhere

Page 88: There is a lot of communal activities going on. But I think this again might be a place where the book is a product of its time.

Page 89: Sigh a dream sequence I can’t help but think it is foreboding of what’s to come. the dream is of war.

Page 91: Ok now I can’t figure out if this is a dream or reality that it’s like a dream

Page 92: Ok so it did happen, the world without war, now has raids…

Page 93: The idea that a whole people it’s the same also seems antiquated. But it gets disproven on the next page – thank you.

Page 94: hmmm more communism. Communal child rearing – one of the features of Soviet Russia that really didn’t work.

Page 98: Climate change cursed by humans 1969, that’s how long we have talked about it!

Chapter 9

Page 100: Sigh soothe myth. I could do without those

Chapter 10

Page 110: Wow what a info dump, though in context it works, though it becomes less of a conversation and more of a lecture

Page 119: Now the plot is moving and the political games are being played. I even seem to be able to follow

Chapter 13

Page 142: The envoy has been put to prison that sounds an awful lot like a concentration camp. Not one of the death camps, but a concentration camp. They are underfeed, working, in too thin clothing and sleeping on shelf in every bright light rooms. Which of course means that they are always tired, always hungry always cold and never have enough energy to do anything about it.

Page 143: “Among my fellow prisoners I had also for the first time on winter a curtain feeling of being a man among women, our among eunuchs. The prisoners had that same flabbiness and coarseness.”
Now I am once again confused about the envoy’s gender. Am I to believe that he at this point of the story is in a male body? I am confused. In many books that would not matter much but because of the protagonist’s own attitudes towards gender I think it matters – it might even matter a great deal.

Page 144: “But it is not human to be without shame and without desire.” The camp is chemically neutering the prisoners because it is more convenient than to have them go into kemmer. This make them passive and docile – apparently humans who are not sexual beings have no agency… the lack of agency could not possible be do to the lack of food, sleep and heat? It is quite standard practices of oppressive regimes in concentration camps.

Page 146: “There was no infirmary. the principle of the farm was work or die;” This very much sound like a concentration camp or gulag.

Chapter 14

Page 150: I find the shift back and forth between the perspectives quite abrupt – sometimes it takes me half a page to figure out that there was shift in pov and not just a shift in time with the start of the chapter. This to me is a failure in the writing – it is sure to take me out of the story and be annoyed at it once again.

Page 161: I find that I like Estraven’s points of view chapters much better than the envoys. because the are a insider perspective, they do not need to constantly judge the genderlessness of the society and explain all aspects of the society by the lack of gender

Page 162: So much of this story hinges on miscommunication between the two point of view characters. finally they are coming to an understanding

Chapter 15

Page 172: For the last pages the story has not felt like a narrative, not really and now there is something like a narrative again.
“How doors one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a curtain ploughland in the hills, but what is the sense of giving a boundary to ask that, of giving a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?* So an insightful view of country and nationalism coming from Estraven.

Page 174: Ai was just told by Estraven Garth to call him by his last name yet in the narrative he persist to call him Estraven when telling about him. I wonder what happens later on to course this. Because if no change happen this is really rude.

Chapter 16

Page 185: Now Estraven  started to judge the envoys performance and to my gendered eye it seems like quite a gendered estimate. But soon it becomes clear that really that is just my biases showing. Estraven explicitly says that he does not know if Ai’s attitudes are due to gender, culture, personality or sexuality. He does not persist to make judgements of a whole race based on one individual.

Page 186: It’s very effective to start every entry with “no luck.” It really underlines the monotony and dread of the situation on the ice cap.

Page 191: Ai says”But the differences are very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest factor in one’s life, it’s whether one’s born make our female.”

Chapter 18

Page 202: “and I see the again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and has pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. […]. until then I had rejected him, refused him his reality.” Finally Ai accepts that he has been very biased and unfair towards his friend Estraven… the person he would not even admit was a friend.

Chapter 19

Page 215: I think the book has many faults, but most of them are now behind me as far as I can tell. I really hope Estraven  don’t die before they get to civilization”

Page 223: Now Ai underestimates Estraven again because of his lack of raw body strength, he thinks that es lacks mental strength.

Page 231: I’m so sorry that I called it. Estraven was the better person of the two, so of course he had to die.

Chapter 20:

Page 232: “But I had not the strength, the courage, to get off my bed and shut my prison door.” That it’s what both grief and sickness looks feels like isn’t is.

Page 240: I told my mom that the plot is not what the book is about and think the ending seals that. The envoy accomplices his goal and I it’s just sad, there is no sense of accomplishment.

Page 241: Ai has gone totally native now. Thinking of his own people, his own branch of humanity as strange and foreign, as wrong.

Quick thoughts after finishing the book

This book had a lot of faults. It took my 70 pages and two weeks to get to a point where I wanted to read it. However it is such a meaty book for such a short book. It has had me talking about it almost constantly. It has had me thinking about it a lot.
Towards the end of the book I got quite invested in the characters but that took at least 150 pages. The plot did nothing for me – I really couldn’t care less about it – which is probably also why I will not be reading more in the series. However it is not the last Le Guin book I am reading. Sometimes the book was very much of it time, sometimes it really wasn’t. Sometimes I really questioned the writing choices (pulling me out of the book) and sometimes it was really beautifully written.

Tomorrow I will write a proper review where I pull my thoughts together.

*Modified for grammar, spelling and clarity with commentary

The stats

Published: Published 1992 by Orbit, originally published 1969
Read: September 9th – 27th 2014
Format: Paperback

The author: Female, white, USA
The protagonist: Male, PoC, envoy & ungendered, prime minister

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