I’m not normally a sci-fi reader, but that was part of the reason I decided to give The Left Hand of Darkness a try: I had an audible credit to use, I wanted to give Le Guin another chance, and the description said this was a classic sci-fi title. I think because I’m not familiar with the genre, the difficulty I’d had with the age of A Wizard of Earthsea didn’t bother me as much here, even though it was originally published in 1969. Sometimes groundbreaking doesn’t always equal entertaining, but I found much to like in The Left Hand of Darkness.
Summary: Genly Ai is an emissary of the Ekumen, a coalition of planets, to a wintry planet named Gethen, which is populated by humanoid aliens who have no fixed gender but instead become one gender or another for a few days during their sexual cycle. Genly has to navigate a new culture, society, and political rivalries while he tries to convince these aliens to join the Ekumen. Central to his mission is the mysterious Estraven, advisor to the king, who may be either friend or rival.
The questions of gender are intriguing for modern-day society; to some they may seem simplistic, but in Le Guin’s time this was no doubt more of a complex issue. (Disclaimer: I know literally nothing about gender theory and have no idea how this book would be appreciated by someone who does know about it.) Genly struggles not only with being perpetually cold but also with how to deal with people who are never quite male and never quite female. Le Guin/Genly uses the pronoun ‘he’ throughout, and I’m not quite sure whether this is a convention for ease of storytelling or whether it reflects what Genly expects in Gethenian society. I rather expect the latter; a theme running throughout is Genly’s discomfort with the Gethenians when they take on more feminine aspects. Genly is in many ways a flawed narrator, though I did get annoyed with him sometimes for being extremely imperceptive.
Overall, it was an interesting read, though the pace is glacial (pun sort of intended?). I wouldn’t say it will number among my favourites, but it was definitely a solid read (or, in my case, listen), and I was definitely emotionally invested to some degree by the end.
One point about the audiobook: in order to distinguish between Genly’s POV and Estraven’s, the narrator uses a slightly higher-pitched (arguably more ‘feminine’) voice for Estraven. This has the potential to be slightly annoying, although it is in keeping with Le Guin’s description of Estraven and the other Gethenians.