Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessA friend of mine lent me The Left Hand of Darkness and said: “You have to read it, you’ll really like it!”

While I was reading it on the train, some lady approached me brandishing her own copy and said: “I’m reading that too, I really like it!”

Another time in the lift up to the office where I work, another lady beckoned to the book in my hand and said “I’ve read that, I really like it!”

So here’s a shocker: I did not really like it.

Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness is something of a sci-fi classic. It’s set on a faraway, wintery planet called Gethen, where the dominant humanoid race differs from humans in a pretty significant way: They’re genderless. Or rather, they only develop a gender once a month when they’re on heat, sliding between male and female. Weird!

So there’s a whole lot of gender identity and feminism themes going on here – which are all really interesting! It’s less the premise I wasn’t into and more the execution that put me off: The storyline focuses mostly on Genly Ai, a human envoy to Gethen who’s trying to convince its citizens to join the Ekumen (which is kind of the intergalactic UN), and honestly, Genly is a pretty boring guy. The book switches between his first-person perspective and an equally compelling character called Estraven, an influential politician in one of Gethen’s most powerful nations, who’s exiled because of reasons and eventually bonds with Genly.

All that political intrigue… is not particularly intriguing. It took me a super long time to even get into this thing (my total reading time was around six weeks, which is waaaaay longer than it usually takes me to finish a book), and when I forced myself to read it I skipped over many, many lengthy stretches that don’t say much about anything. Much of the last third of the book (spoiler alert!) tracks Genly and Estraven’s journey across a snowy wasteland – their long, long, long journey – ¬†and getting through it was a real endurance test.

That’s not to say IThe Left Hand of Darkness isn’t worth reading. Those themes and premises are interesting. But like a lot of classics, reading it can be more spoonful of medicine than spoonful of sugar.