RogerBW's Blog

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin 27 February 2017

1969 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. Genly Ai is a human emissary to the world of Winter, sent to bring it into star-travelling civilisation. The natives change gender as part of their life cycle. And this is a problem for him.

This is a book I've always found tough going, but not for the bits most people do. Other readers have reported bogging down in the legends, but I really liked them and could have done with more; it's the core story that dragged for me, as the native lord Estraven slowly, slowly breaks down Genly Ai's preoccupation with the gender binary. Yes, I get the message, you can stop pounding it in now, especially since you've contrived this entire situation just to make your Message the inevitably right answer. (This is, in fact, the best way to get me to change my views away from the author's favoured attitude; I get stubborn.)

Much like 1965's Dune, there's precious little science in this science fiction. If the gender changing were explained as magic rather than hormones it wouldn't make any difference to the story. However, for a supposedly feminist book this is chock full of what we'd now call gender essentialism: any female anywhere will interact with the world this way, any male anywhere will do it that way, and culture, even the enlightened culture of galactic civilisation, is irrelevant: it's all pre-determined. "A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation." And the only possible way to get away from that is to be a sex-changing alien!

In 1969, soft science fiction was a new and growing trend within SF; books that suggested that the Big Interstellar Polity (probably an empire) might have something to learn from the natives were unusual; books that suggested that people might be impermanently-gendered but still people were un-heard-of. These things are all now embedded in our mental and cultural lexica, in large part because of the success and popularity of this book, but as a result a book that rests so heavily on presenting them as a new idea tends in my mind to flop a bit.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

See also:
Unfinished Books of 2014

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