The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula Le Guin
Year published: 1969
Publisher: Ace Books (now Gollancz in the UK)
Genre:Sci-Fi (ish) but on Amazon as ‘Erotic Transgender Fiction’ so do with that what you will
Should you read this? Yeah, probably.

I wasn’t thrilled when this turned out to be the book of choice for December’s Book Club; I’d tried to read it once before but couldn’t finish it. Given that I host Book Club, though, I felt like it was my duty to have another go; so I bravely ploughed in like Bruce Bogtrotter into his chocolate cake, like Jon Snow into Battle of the Bastards.

By ‘bravely ploughed in’, I mean that I made a new Audible account and downloaded the audiobook with my free credit before immediately cancelling the account (take that disapproving look off your face, only God can judge me and I have it on good authority that He hates Jeff Bezos). Audible worked well because I could do other mindless things while listening, like my job.

The story consisted of all the things I have no patience for: aliens, fictional planets, world-building by way of myths and fairytales, that sort of thing. The distinctly nerdy vocabulary bogged me down: mindspeak, Karhide, Orgoreyn, Argaven Harge, shifgrethor, Estraven… For the first half of the book I was rolling my eyes so hard I’m pretty sure I saw my brain – we get it, you’re aliens. I don’t read books for excursions to other worlds, I read books situated squarely in my own drab reality, goddamn it!

The premise of the novel is that the protagonist, Genly Ai, has been sent to the planet of Gethen as an envoy of the Ekumen, a loose union of worlds like the EU but with planets instead of nations and people are joining rather than leaving (#StopBoris). Genly’s mission is to persuade Gethen to join the Ekumen but is having trouble partly due to cultural barriers such as the fact that the people of Gethen have no fixed sex.

The first two thirds of the novel deal with most of the world-building which I found pretty dull, but also absolutely necessary. If it hadn’t been there I’d be complaining that it didn’t make sense and needed more context. I found that things picked up towards the end; there were some interesting discussions about gender and how it influences culture, and what life might be like in an all but completely gender-neutral world and one essentially unmotivated by sex.

My criticisms of this book are really just based on the fact that I can’t be arsed with aliens. Unless they have three eyes, are made of rubber and can be acquired from an arcade game at Pizza Planet, they’re just not for me. Having said that, I recognise that this book raised a lot of really interesting points and gave me a lot to think about while being very skillfully written at a time when many women were blocked from becoming successful writers, especially in such a male-dominated genre as sci-fi (or Erotic Transgender Fiction as Am*z*n would have you believe).

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