Updated date:

"The Left Hand of Darkness" Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel Carriere

Mel Carriere is an online writer, offline reader whose reviews are always fresh, never frozen, despite the cold climate in which he lives.

Mel gives his stamp of approval to Ursula K. LeGuin and her novel "The Left Hand of Darkness."

Mel gives his stamp of approval to Ursula K. LeGuin and her novel "The Left Hand of Darkness."

If Summer Falls on A Weekend...

When you live in a nearly perpetual state of winter, it's probably not a good idea to read sci-fi books about a planet locked in a near-perpetual state of winter, so much so that even it's name is Winter. I admit that since moving to Colorado from California I keep beating the frozen carcass of this dead horse, but I understand now why the Centennial State's own Kenny, Cartmann, Kyle and Stan of South Park are perpetually wrapped in parkas, and why there is snow on the ground in every episode. It's not comedy, it's reality. It last snowed here in Colorado on May 10th, Mother's Day. Love you Mom - here's some flower-sicles for you!

Mom's daffodils definitely need thawing, but her frozen flowers and other such meteorological maladies make me relate to South Park even better. They also make me want to relate to a lame Dad joke my Father told me the other day, rolling his eyes in weariness after listening to my litany of woes about the weather. Reaching into his eighty year old icebox of chilling anecdotes, he shared this frozen nugget of Dad humor, about a perpetually snowy spot he once had his vacation cabin in. He told me the people around there would say If summer falls on a weekend, we have a picnic.

It was quite by accident, coincidence if you will, that while locked still in the gloom of winter one April morn, I picked The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, for my next heaping helping of Lunchtime Lit. Having just finished Winston Groom's El Paso, I was scrambling out the door a little late for work, almost forgetting the literary nourishment I need to refuel me during my half hour mealtime. It has been poor provender I have been lugging along lately in my lunch box, a lot of diet words, very low in caloric intake, barely maintaining my mental metabolic rate. But I stuck my hand blindfolded into my crate of unread books and hoped for the best.

Based on that experience, I now know that there is no such animal as coincidence, there is only synchronicity - the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. Winter clung synchronistically to my furry coat that day in mid-April I walked out the front door, tramping through heavy, wet, branch-breaking snow with The Left Hand of Darkness in my possession. There was no springtime respite in the forecast for my Lunchtime Lit reading, no daffodils in bloom outside the window of my Postal vehicle, I would be bogged down in my igloo for 19 lunchtimes yet. But at least I had something good to read as I shivered behind that snowbank.

Mel takes cover from the approaching blizzard behind the cover of Ursula K. LeGuin's seminal work of wintertime fiction.

Mel takes cover from the approaching blizzard behind the cover of Ursula K. LeGuin's seminal work of wintertime fiction.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit rules are not so much etched in stone as frozen solid. As such, they are subject to springtime thaws, but only if spring happens on Tuesday any given year, an outcome we here in Colorado are still wagering on in late May. Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall (except every other fourth Tuesday), Lunchtime Lit rules do not melt away in the fickle sunshine, they grind along like an implacable glacier, meaning that the books reviewed by the cold, clinical eye of critic Mel Carriere are only read during his refrigerated half-hour postal lunch break. They are never mushed off on his team of huskies to his igloo at night, to be perused by the light of aurora borealis.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

BookPagesWord CountDate StartedDate FinishedLunchtimes Consumed

Thy Tears Might Cease

592

207,375

4/14/2020

6/26/2020

41

Every Man Dies Alone

500

194,500

6/27/2020

8/20/2020

29

The Three Body Problem

390

118,450

8/22/2020

10/1/2020

21

King Jesus

413

182,530

10/2/2020

1/13/2021

36

The City We Became

479

130,660

1/15/2021

2/25/2021

25

El Paso

477

183,280

2/26/2021

4/16/2021

30

The Left Hand of Darkness

304

85,450

4/17/2021

5/15/2021

19

*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.

**Thirty other titles, with a total estimated word count of 6,671,709 and 1,047 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

Frozen Fantasyland at a Hyperspace Pace

It is hard to say whether LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is fantasy or science fiction. Who cares?- says you, but it seems like an important question, because there are genre junkies out there who protest every time you suggest the wrong kind of book to them, answering "No thanks, I only read fantasy," or "How dare you, I only read science fiction." But The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those tweeners that will either appeal to, or completely alienate both groups. Good thing your revered reviewer is no such genre junkie, meaning he read the novel without prejudice, and analyzed it on the sole basis of its storytelling merits.

On the one hand, I can see how Darkness, or Left Hand - we can debate how to abbreviate the title too, is science fiction. An interplanetary confederation of hominid-inhabited worlds called the Ekumen has dispatched envoy Genly Ai to bring the planet called Gethen, meaning Winter in the local vernacular, into the fold. In this recruitment effort lies the story's first element of high fantasy. The humans living on the far-flung planets of the Ekumen are all at peace with one another, and only want to incorporate Winter into their alliance to bestow upon it their economic, cultural, and technological benefits! Fancy that flight of deluded imagination! But because Gethen is some 80 light years away from the Ekumen's capital of Hain, forcing Genly Ai to take his own flight of fancy on a spaceship, traveling at the speed of light, we better call it science fiction. This, even though Gethen itself is not what we would call high-tech at all, it is more of a steampunk society, the people plodding along at the slow pace that foot traffic and 19th-century era mechanical contrivances can carry them. There being no birds on that anachronistic snowball for inspiration, the thoroughly grounded inhabitants haven't even invented flight.

So even though the expression flight of fantasy is inconceivable in any Gethenian dialect, it might be better if we label the book as fantasy, instead. Once Genly Ai lands from outer space, science fiction stops and its rival genre begins. The icy orb of Gethen is made up of several diverse nations, each with its own culture, religion, and government. The author has crafted the planet in true Tolkien-esque fashion, and I would call it an epic if it were not a mere 300 pages of large font . But some authors have the ability to pack concise prose into a tightly bound cover, artfully fashioning a succinct story that expands like a pop-up book into an epic when you open it. LeGuin is one of these. Particularly satisfying is the mythology of her imaginary world - the myths she relates in between narrative passages are better than the plot. These fabricated fables lend further credence to the fantasy classification.

Okay, there are no Potter-esque magical creatures, witches or warlocks here, and there are no Tolkien-esque elves, dwarves, hobbits or orcs to intrude upon the unbroken Sci-Fi icepack. Yet Arthur-esque kings and lords abound, equipped with the complex religious devices they use to sanctify their right to rule. For this reason one can still label it fantasy, if one needs to.

Mired down in this Shakespearean muck of pinning different names on the same frozen rose, let's turn to the experts to see what they have to say about it. Do the pundits call The Left Hand of Darkness fantasy, or science fiction?

After the book's 1969 publication, it garnered both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, Science-Fiction's highest distinctions. Based on this alone, LeGuin should be incorporated into the pantheon of Sci-Fi luminaries - Asimov, Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, etc.. These lofty distinctions appeared to ice the matter, but contemporary critic Harold Bloom then commented that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time." To further muddy the waters, some reviewers even referred to The Left Hand of Darkness as post-modernism, based on the novel's non-linear narrative style.

Hmm, it seems like we have a hung jury here, and are unable to reach a verdict, your honor. So why not just cast the useless, rhetorical hair-splitting aside and enjoy the book for what it is - a chilling but superbly rendered tale, one that sometimes warms the soul in spite of its Arctic-like climate. So whether your like science fiction, fantasy, horror, Dr. Seuss, Disneyland or Mother Goose, I recommend that you read it. With the caveat, of course, that from a psychological standpoint it is preferable for a stifling August mealtime break, 100 degrees in the shade, rather than for a frosty April Colorado afternoon, with sticky, slushy snow falling around the postal picnic table where you are already shivering.

Is LeGuin's iceball of Gethen a science-fiction or fantasy setting?

Is LeGuin's iceball of Gethen a science-fiction or fantasy setting?

Androgynous Before its Time

Let us not forget that The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, long before a lot of the things now taken for granted by society became de rigueur. Yes, the late sixties ushered in an awakening from a dark age of sorts - women were asserting themselves, oppressed minorities were fighting for their right to be represented, war-mongering, flag-waving xenophobia was being denounced, flower-power peace and love were in the air everywhere. But the sixties were still a long shot from homosexuals holding hands in public or getting married, Wheaties-box hero Bruce Jenner had not transformed into Kaitlyn with the degree of acceptance that allows her to dare a run for Governor of California, and Potter author JK Rowling was not being demonized for protesting the presence of trans-people in women's restrooms. Relatively speaking, it was still an uptight place back then, the late 60s.

As such, The Left Hand of Darkness seems much more appropriate for our own time than for its own. This is because those darn Gethenians - the nominally human inhabitants of that ice cube bobbing in the galactic glass, are androgynous, ambisexual. This means they are neither male or female, but can be both at different times in their lives. Any Gethenian can either father or mother children, depending on the biological flight of fantasy dictated by their genes. Furthermore, like most earthly mammals other than horn-dog humans, the people there only go into rut once per year, a 26 day period called kemmer. During this month-long orgy anything goes without any resulting moral outrage, but for the rest of the year the folks are celibate, downright saint-like. When "regular" human Genly Ai reveals that he can do it whenever the urge strikes, year-round, 24-7, feast or famine, sunshine or snow, the locals declare him a "pervert."

LeGuin's depiction of androgyny in her fictional subjects seems to foretell the advent of transgenderism in our own society, way before it was socially acceptable. When she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness, was the foreward-thinking author peering into a crystal ball to predict the dramatic changes that would shake society, or was the book a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it possible the novel has been a favorite among those troubled by doubts of their own gender, and has as such been used by them as a rallying cry for the right to play the hand that nature deals?

For those of us that grew up in the socially-conversative, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver atmosphere of the late 60s, early 70s, it might seem peculiar that LeGuin was criticized for not denouncing heterosexual dominance more strongly in her fiction. As is often typical today, the pesky little pronouns she employed in her novel came under fire from those on the front lines of political correctness. The nitpicking overseers of sensitive speech questioned why she used he, instead of she, when referring to the Gethenian characters, or why she didn't invent a neutral pronoun to describe them, if they were both at once? As such, reaction to The Left Hand of Darkness presaged another debate whose spark has spread and expanded to an inferno in our own day

Therefore, whether or not one agrees with the implications of the novel's novel ideas or not, The Left Hand of Darkness cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. In the five decades since the book was published, society has indeed taken a lightspeed jump, and LeGuin was one of the pilots of that vessel.

We've come a long way since "The Left Hand of Darkness" came out of the closet in the sixties. Was Ursula K. LeGuin a prophet, or a catalyst?

We've come a long way since "The Left Hand of Darkness" came out of the closet in the sixties. Was Ursula K. LeGuin a prophet, or a catalyst?

A Literary Change-Up, Thawed Out for Current Consumption

Author Ursula K. LeGuin came from Berkeley, California. I doubt she ever saw a snowflake. Even taking into consideration the reversal of gender roles her novel seems to forecast like impending cold weather, it is unlikely she ever shoveled that thick white slop off of her doorstep, either. Still, her book maintains its chilling effect upon readers to this day, fifty years across the gap of time and space where we stand. As Genly Ai and his local champion Estraven tramp across the endless polar icepack of Winter on their way to safety, we in the here and now can feel the frostbite in their fingers, we are snow-blinded by the glare of the sun off of that white sheet without end, and we experience the warmth generated by the two friends, so different yet so alike, as they huddle together in their tent upon that vast glacial mass.

Colorado is not the ice world of Gethen. We have seasons here, at least in theory, and I desperately hope summer comes on a Sunday this year, so I can have the day off to enjoy it. But as I look out my window at the scowling, capricious face of Long's Peak, looming 14,000 feet up high, I wonder what meteorological curve balls he, she, or it intends to fling at us next from behind that massive, rocky curtain, shivering here as we are in the batter's box of late spring.

The Left Hand of Darkness was definitely a breaking ball for its time too, or at least a change-up, evoking a blizzard of controversy that fifty-years later begins to melt away, revealing reluctant flowers long trapped beneath Winter's snowpack.

The stormy face of Long's Peak scowls down upon Mel as he hacks out his cold-hearted book reviews.

The stormy face of Long's Peak scowls down upon Mel as he hacks out his cold-hearted book reviews.

Comments

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on June 03, 2021:

Thank you, Miz B, it's wonderful to hear from you. I am lukewarm on the Sci-fi genre myself, but a good book is a good book, regardless. Speaking of Sci-fi, have you tried the Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu? Actually it's called Remembrance of Earth's Past or some such, but everybody calls it Three Body Problem, because of the prominence (and controversy) of its famous first book. Very in depth, but fascinating stuff.

I really appreciate you dropping by.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 31, 2021:

Wonderful review of a great book, Mel. I've been a sci-fi fan ever since I picked up my first one in high school. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors, and I read this one when it first came out. Back then I'm not sure that there was a fantasy genre, but I agree that it splits the genres today. And, by the way, at least our regional library recognized such by listing books like this one in both categories. It was a superb reading experience for me then, and I believe I read it again just a few years ago. I like the way you wove this story in with today's sociological climate. It's a darn good read, and I highly recommend it.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 30, 2021:

That's great you have that big collection of books, Road Monkey. Mine are all in a crate right now because we are camping out in an apartment while we wait for our home to be finished. At that time, they will be transferred onto proper shelves. The crate is actually a box, but because I had already used the word box in that paragraph, I didn't want to sound redundant.

I had actually never heard of LeGuin prior to this, but it is fun to pick a book at random and see how it goes. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but it definitely expands ones reading horizons.

I appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 30, 2021:

Thank you Umesh. Nice of you to drop by.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 30, 2021:

Thank you Linda. This was my first experiment with Ursula K. LeGuin's work as well. I think this book belonged to my son, but it somehow hitchhiked its way to Colorado with me. I believe LeGuin has several books based around this concept of the interstellar Ekumen alliance.

I appreciate you dropping in.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 30, 2021:

Thank you for creating this review, Mel. I intend to read the book that you’ve described. I want to explore Ursula K. Le Guin‘s work. “The Left Hand of Darkness” sounds like an interesting story for the start of my exploration.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 30, 2021:

Nice review.

RoadMonkey on May 30, 2021:

I have read some Ursula K LeGuin but I don't recall reading this one and from your review, it sounds like one that you would not forget. I can't say that LeGuin is an author I would instantly pick up a book by (unlike Heinlein or Asimov) but certainly her works challenge you. I like both fantasy and Sci fi, so I must look out for this one. I like the idea of a crate of unread books. My unread ones are scattered on my shelves along with the "read" ones I want to go back to some time.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 30, 2021:

Thank you Pamela. Right now I am listening to thunder rumbling outside. It sounds like it is preparing to rain, but here in Colorado, that rain could turn to snow on the whim of the weather gods. I was joking about snow with my wife last night, hopefully just joking, but who knows, nature may have the last laugh. We shall soon see, as I am about to dare to go out in it.

I really appreciate you dropping in to read.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 30, 2021:

First, I do hope your weather improves soon. I have not read any Ursula Le Guin's novels, but this sounds really good. I always like reading your book reviews as they are quite entertaining.

It does sound like you finally found a book you enjoyed, so that is a win. This is an excellent lunchtime lit review.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 30, 2021:

Thank you John. I am thrilled that somebody else out there has actually read one of these things, for a change. I usually only get blank stares when I talk about these books. Can you send me the link to that poem, I would love to read it. My email is melcarriere@outlook.com, if I am allowed to include that here.

I am exceptionally pleased my your comment. Thanks so much for dropping in.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 30, 2021:

This is great, Mel. That synchronicity made you select a good novel in this one. As you pointed out, this was written well before its time and is even more relevant today. I am a fan of Ursula Le Guin, and have written a series of hubs inspired by the titles of her books. Most are just poems with little or no connection to the storyline of the books themselves.

I wrote one based on ‘The Left Hand if Darkness” and called it “Darkness Is Ambidexntorus...”

Another great Lunchtime Literature review.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 30, 2021:

And to think we're only halfway to the North Pole here, Bill. This place is positively balmy compared to the iceberg you used to dwell on. But the trees have finally finished putting on their clothes, and the place is greener, at last, than any place I've ever lived before.

I really appreciate you dropping in.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 30, 2021:

When I was in Alaska for a year, I wondered if summer even existed. We had our school's barbecue in late May while snow fell. It was disconcerting at best; it was downright depressing at worst.

Long way to say I understand. :)

Related Articles