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The Classic of Science Fiction: "The Left Hand of Darkness"

Our last Donostia Book Club meeting was dedicated to Ursula Le Guin's “The Left Hand of Darkness”. It was published in 1969 and won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It quickly became one of the most taught scifi novels at universitites, just when the scholarly interest in science fiction was beginning. By most, the book is considered a revolutionary study un gender, but anyone who has read it will have to admit it's much more than that.

When the human ambassador Genly Ai is sent to Gethen, the planet known as Winter by those outsiders who have experienced its arctic climate, he thinks that his mission will be a standard one of making peace between warring factions. Instead the ambassador finds himself wildly unprepared. For Gethen is inhabited by a society with a rich, ancient culture full of strange beauty and deadly intrigue - a society of people who are both male and female in one, and neither. This lack of fixed gender, and the resulting lack of gender-based discrimination, is the very cornerstone of Gethen life. But Genly is all too human. Unless he can overcome his ingrained prejudices about the significance of "male" and "female" he may destroy both his mission and himself.”

Definitely the most visible point of the novel is Genly Ai's understanding of bilogical and cultural concepts of male and female. On Gethen, unlike on Earth, humans (or human´like beings) are androgynous, only becoming male or female at the height of their sexual cycle. Anyone, at any point in their lives could bear any of this role, anyone could become pregnant, the responsibilities and/or risks are equal for all. Ai, a male, feels isolated and most of the time confused by the nature of Gethanians. Since most of the time we see the new world through his eyes, the novel acquires almost anthropological feeling.

I said “most of the time”. There is a second narrator, Estraven, a local politician who decides to support Ai's cause. He knows it's not a good choice for him, but decides to sacrify himself for the good of his planet. That's when we realise the novel covers some big concepts, tries to define them and throws a refreshing light on things that by many are considered well-defined and known but are not: patriotism, sacrifice, love. One of the most important quotes shows us how different the perception of some ideas can be:
Do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly upon me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear.”

Curiously, as innovative and bold as it was the novel recived criticism not for being too progressive, but for not being enough of it. Eventhough the Gethanians are androgynous, the narrator refers to them using male pronouns. It was widely criticised by the feminists, but also by Stanislaw Lem. My argument not to discard this kind of expression would be that Ai sees Gethaninas as man most of the time and he is the narrator, so the choice of male pronouns is not that surprising. But, Ursula Le Guin agreed with her opponents. In 1976, she wrote an essay defending the novel and how she dealt with the Gethenians' gender. But then in 1987, she revised the essay, and admitted that the critics had a point.

I don't want to reveal to much of the plot and I'm also not an expert on science fiction literature. There are some die-hard fans who could tell you much more about the novel and its author. So, to close this post I would like to leave you with the video by Mr. Kolber´s Teaching suggesting some points to ponder about when reading “The Left Hand of Darkness”. And if you haven't read it yet: it's hight time to do it!


  1. Hola! Una brillante gusto conocer varios conceptos de tu reseña.gracias! Saludosbuhos

  2. Hola! Gracias por leerme! El libro tiene mucho más de lo que escribí aquí, pero para cubrirlo todo, habría que escribir un ensayo de muchas páginas ;)


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