False expectations

Cover of 2001 hardcover edition

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31. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

That’s basically what this book is about, and sums up what I previously knew of Le Guin’s work: practically nothing besides that she is well known for her fantasy writing.

In this classic of science fiction Le Guin really tackles issues of gender, stereotyping and cultural clashes. Genly Ai, our main narrator (although several chapters are by other major or minor characters, all in the form of official reports in one form or another) is the only alien on the planet known to outsiders as Winter, since it’s deep in an Ice Age, or locally as Gethen. He is openly there as the ambassador of the Ekumen, a loose federation of the known worlds with human-like life, and trying to negotiate the local etiquette and politics with particular difficulty because he just can’t get used to the fact that Winter’s natives are hermaphrodite, and spend most of their lives without gender. They are sexually active only cyclicly, and during any cycle may ‘turn’ either male or female. A temporary female who becomes pregnant will remain so until she has and then weans her child but will not necessarily be so again. Many Gethenians are mother to some of their children and father to others, with the distinction meaning little or nothing beyond infancy.

Genly knows intellectually that his constant instinctive attempts to assign male or female-ness to the people he meets are both useless and counter-productive, but even after some years there he can’t do it, and this will become just part of his downfall.

First published in 1969, the novel gets to openly discuss issues of gender, sexuality (including homosexuality and bisexuality), marriage and family relationships as well as those of culture clash and relative value. It took me awhile to get into the story (DH did not have that problem though) but it was definitely worth the read for simple enjoyment even beyond the thought-provocation. Recommended.

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2 Responses to “False expectations”

  1. Karyn @ kloppenmum Says:

    I’ve read the Earthsea series, but not this. I’ll have to look out for it: sounds interesting.

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