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Old 12-11-2018, 12:03 PM   #1
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January 2019 Discussion • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is the January selection for the New Leaf Book Club.



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The Left Hand of Darkness was among the first books in the genre now known as feminist science fiction and is the most famous examination of androgyny in science fiction. A major theme of the novel is the effect of sex and gender on culture and society.

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Old 01-15-2019, 07:11 AM   #2
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It's time to discuss The Left Hand of Darkness. What did we think of it?
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Old 01-15-2019, 09:05 AM   #3
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First let me say, this has to be one of my all time favourite book titles. I'm talking about the title itself: The Left Hand of Darkness. I'm not totally convinced it and the book go perfectly together (even though it's a quote from the book) but I still love that title.

Now to the book itself. It's been years since I last read it, and I think it has stood up quite well ... considering.

The first half of this is a bit inconsistent in pace and presentation, and that makes it hard going in places - by today's standards, although I think the style was fairly typical in science fiction back when this was written. The further you get in the more involving and evocative it becomes. Overall I enjoyed it as a science fiction story with a strongly human aspect (and I much prefer this sort of thing over technical expositions, or space-opera and space-thriller type books).

It is, now, an acknowledged classic, based - as I understand it - on its treatment of gender. But my reading of it is that the gender aspects were not originally intended to be of the strength since ascribed to them. Rather, like most science fiction, the entire story is a "what if" question of which gender is just one aspect. For example the developing relationship between Genly and Estraven is obviously central to the story, and this is about ambition, foresight, friendship, loyalty, betrayal and failure to understand one another; gender is in there behind all that, it is important to the story, but it's not the entire story.
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Old 01-15-2019, 10:08 AM   #4
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My reaction somewhat mirrors gmw's. My overriding impression was of a really quite excellent piece of SF addressing the simple reality that aliens would be alien. Obviously, the author's choices about the nature of the differences had relevance to societal and gender issues here, but I did not feel like I was reading a treatise on human gender politics dressed up as SF. I found myself enjoying a work of anthropological SF, one that examined with detail and internal rigour and consistency the way the species' own nature and its environment shaped the culture. The grammatical and vocabulary notes reinforced for me the impression of a novel that was serious about world building and exploring difference.
In that context, Genly reminded me of Bren Cameron in Foreigner, an interpreter and analyser of difference. The closest I ever felt the author came to unsubtle moralising was when she touched on a sentiment close to my on heart, the difference between love of the physical environs of one's home and patriotism. Because the stated views meshed perfectly with mine, I enjoyed the passage greatly, but it was definitely blunt and not nuanced at all, unlike the androgyny/bisexuality that became the book's most famous feature.
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Old 01-15-2019, 11:09 AM   #5
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It is indeed one of the great titles!

I'm going to start off by saying I'm glad to have read it. It's an important book and I was entertained overall.

Yeah, there's a "but" implied there! It strikes me as very much a book of its time, an outgrowth of the burgeoning women's and race movements. I don't think it's aged well. The take on sex/gender/sexuality was determinative and explicitly a case of either/or, whether it be masculine/feminine or gendered/androgynous. It's heteronormative and what comes across as extremely biased in its attitudes toward women. I don't know enough about Le Guin to know whether that reflected her own attitudes or whether she was projecting her sense of what men think; I suspect that it's some of both.

Aside from that, I thought the world-building was tedious; it was far too much tell and not show. Again, I suspect it reflects its time. I don't read sci-fi or fantasy much if at all, but my sense is that the best of the current authors rely on knowing their world thoroughly and conveying it indirectly and consistently. More of the onus is on the reader, a very good thing!

Since I'm not grounded at all in classic sci-fi, I'm going to be interested to learn how this fits in with the literature. I know it was groundbreaking and it gets a pass for that.

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not nuanced at all, unlike the androgyny/bisexuality that became the book's most famous feature.
As I said above, I didn't find the take on sexuality to be at all nuanced.

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For example the developing relationship between Genly and Estraven is obviously central to the story, and this is about ambition, foresight, friendship, loyalty, betrayal and failure to understand one another; gender is in there behind all that, it is important to the story, but it's not the entire story.
I agree that the relationship between Genly and Estraven was central to the story, but I didn't think there was enough plot. Once you strip out the world-building, both Genly's exegesis and the supporting historical and mythical texts, there was very little story left.
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Old 01-15-2019, 11:18 AM   #6
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I had never read this before, so I did not come to it with any notions or nostalgia as I have seen others mention. I did not love it as much as many, but I also really enjoyed reading it in the context of our time (and hers, when it was written).

The introduction! There is nothing I did not love about this introduction! I was reminded so strongly of Joan Didion that I photocopied the introduction on my home copier and gave it to my wife (a writer) to read.

Quote:
"The truth against the world!" -- Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists of inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That's the truth!
From Joan Didion:

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"[Writing is] hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream."

- The Art of Fiction, No. 71, The Paris Review, 1978
I can't help but feel sledgehammered by the notion of Fear being king and ruler in our current climate. I read those lines on the day the cheeto-in-chief plans to declare an emergency to close the borders. Not trying to drag the political subforum in, but how can I not at least comment on this?

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"I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth. And so I rule my country well. Because only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough. You are what you say you are, yet you're a joke, a hoax. There's nothing between the stars but void and terror and darkness, and you come out of that alone trying to frighten me. But I am already afraid, and I am the king. Fear is king!"
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What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry?
This quote brought to mind an article from Vox last week which quoted a Trump supporter who is being hurt by his policies: "He’s not hurting the people he needs to be.” Is this the hate of one's uncontry? Seems awfully prophetic to me.
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Old 01-15-2019, 11:22 AM   #7
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The take on sex/gender/sexuality was determinative and explicitly a case of either/or, whether it be masculine/feminine or gendered/androgynous. It's heteronormative and what comes across as extremely biased in its attitudes toward women. I don't know enough about Le Guin to know whether that reflected her own attitudes or whether she was projecting her sense of what men think; I suspect that it's some of both.
I agree! It brought to mind Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy where her narrator, having no concept of gender defaulted to using feminine pronouns for everyone in the books. I know this is probably heresy, but I feel like Leckie pulled it off better.

And, of course, there were the passing references to us pesky gays as deviants, even in the non-gendered world of Winter.

(Sorry for the double post!)
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Old 01-15-2019, 11:46 AM   #8
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Sitting this one out. No audiobook at the library made this a nonstarter for me--I might have made an attempt to listen to something I'm predisposed to dislike, but trying to read it would make my eyes glaze over. The comments so far are reinforcing my decision; this is just not my bag.
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Old 01-15-2019, 12:03 PM   #9
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It's heteronormative and what comes across as extremely biased in its attitudes toward women. I don't know enough about Le Guin to know whether that reflected her own attitudes or whether she was projecting her sense of what men think; I suspect that it's some of both.
I lean towards her projecting her sense of what men think. That fits with what she has written elsewhere, for example, the Earthsea character Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. ("Let them accept her life and the years of her life until her death, which is also theirs. Let them find her acceptable. Let her be eaten!")

That's what makes the novel most interesting to me; the notion of a culture that isn't built on life assignment based on sexual reproduction.
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Old 01-15-2019, 04:07 PM   #10
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I'm in progress but I am way behind on any reading this year. Only one book completed this year and it was a short one.

My initial thoughts on the introduction, which was written in 1976 about 7 years after the book was published, is that it felt like she thought that her work needed defending and/or explaining. Despite winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Were current discussions of the book not hitting her expectations? Did people (do we) just not get what she was going for?

Edit: Explaining isn't the right word. She didn't try to explain the book in the introduction (thankfully) but she was trying to explain why the book was written as it was and the tone was defensive.

Last edited by Dazrin; 01-15-2019 at 04:13 PM. Reason: stated
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Old 01-15-2019, 04:23 PM   #11
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First let me say, this has to be one of my all time favourite book titles. I'm talking about the title itself: The Left Hand of Darkness. I'm not totally convinced it and the book go perfectly together (even though it's a quote from the book) but I still love that title.

Now to the book itself. It's been years since I last read it, and I think it has stood up quite well ... considering.

The first half of this is a bit inconsistent in pace and presentation, and that makes it hard going in places - by today's standards, although I think the style was fairly typical in science fiction back when this was written. The further you get in the more involving and evocative it becomes. Overall I enjoyed it as a science fiction story with a strongly human aspect (and I much prefer this sort of thing over technical expositions, or space-opera and space-thriller type books).

It is, now, an acknowledged classic, based - as I understand it - on its treatment of gender. But my reading of it is that the gender aspects were not originally intended to be of the strength since ascribed to them. Rather, like most science fiction, the entire story is a "what if" question of which gender is just one aspect. For example the developing relationship between Genly and Estraven is obviously central to the story, and this is about ambition, foresight, friendship, loyalty, betrayal and failure to understand one another; gender is in there behind all that, it is important to the story, but it's not the entire story.
I would agree that the relationship between Genly and Estraven was the emotional focus of the story and that their relationship was developed with considerable subtlety.
The gender issue does hit quite hard at the very end when Genly suddenly sees his own race from the perspective of the people of Winter. This was a direct result of the depth of his relationship with Estraven.
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Old 01-15-2019, 07:01 PM   #12
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I didn't really enjoy this book. I found it a slog. When it wasn't burying me in endless descriptions of snow and ice* it was filling the page with terms and words from the language(s) of Winter. I think a certain amount of use-the-word-then-explain-it-later works well to help build the world, too much leaves me confused.** And I never really got the whole honour code thing that a lot of the plot depends on.

Oh and the scenes on the farm? Grim.

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It is, now, an acknowledged classic, based - as I understand it - on its treatment of gender. But my reading of it is that the gender aspects were not originally intended to be of the strength since ascribed to them. Rather, like most science fiction, the entire story is a "what if" question of which gender is just one aspect.
This makes sense because I really felt like as well as being far less nuanced than I thought it would be, there was actually very little that dealt with the gender stuff directly. I mean there's one scene where Estraven seems surprised that roles are determined by sex in Genly's world, but that's about it. Apart from that we get a lot of noticing of feminine/masculine traits based on stereotypes of personality.

I did read in one of the three introductions in my copy, that LeGuin intended the masculine pronouns to stand for generic ones and later regretted it. I do think it would have made it more striking if the Winter natives were constantly referred to as they/them or something. It would have jarred in a good way.

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It's heteronormative and what comes across as extremely biased in its attitudes toward women.
Exactly. I gave it a partial pass because of its time. She also copped to not exploring same-sex relationships.

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Aside from that, I thought the world-building was tedious; it was far too much tell and not show.
Agree.

Quote:
I agree that the relationship between Genly and Estraven was central to the story, but I didn't think there was enough plot. Once you strip out the world-building, both Genly's exegesis and the supporting historical and mythical texts, there was very little story left.
Not enough plot and of what there was was confusing or gruesome.

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My initial thoughts on the introduction, which was written in 1976 about 7 years after the book was published, is that it felt like she thought that her work needed defending and/or explaining. Despite winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Were current discussions of the book not hitting her expectations? Did people (do we) just not get what she was going for?

Edit: Explaining isn't the right word. She didn't try to explain the book in the introduction (thankfully) but she was trying to explain why the book was written as it was and the tone was defensive.
The introduction by China Mieville (I looked it up) quotes some later articles and interviews with her. It seems she got criticism from feminists for not going far enough. He praises her for taking that criticism seriously whilst letting the work itself stand unchanged. He also quotes her as saying that her initial defence that the book wasn't really about the gender issues was 'bluster' saying,

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I had opened a can of worms and was trying hard to shut it
Like issybird I'm glad I've read it as it is considered so seminal, however I can't say I enjoyed much of it. Some of the mythic story parts and some of the relationship between Estraven and Genly.



*(whilst reading chapter 18 I accidentally skipped forward to 19 and didn't realise for several pages!)

**(it would have helped if the section at the end of the book about the days of the week and months and so on were at the beginning not the end. The first chapter of Estraven's journal I thought the bits in italics were other characters, that he was describing their place in the hierarchy. It took about 3 pages to realise they were days.)
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Old 01-15-2019, 07:49 PM   #13
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Personally, I think the introduction to the novel br Le Guin is particularly fine and well worth reading. She was reacting in part to the approach of Amis in New Maps of Hell which emphasised the extrapolation approach and also to the old traditional space opera.

I would tend to agree that the world building takes too much time and bogs things down somewhat in the early parts of the book. She does work it in through the viewpoint of Genly which makes it reasonably acceptable. (Many of the old Golden Age stories just dumped a load of exposition.) But once that is settled the pace of the story and the key relatiionship build to a fine resolution.
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Old 01-15-2019, 08:11 PM   #14
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I didn't really enjoy this book. I found it a slog.

Like issybird I'm glad I've read it as it is considered so seminal, however I can't say I enjoyed much of it. Some of the mythic story parts and some of the relationship between Estraven and Genly.

I definitely found it a slog, which seemed apt given that so much of it very literally was for the two lead characters. I did enjoy the book, but as a mental exercise, and an opportunity to examine a famous book and see why it was famous. It was not a fun read, and not one I'd choose to read again. Mention of China Mieville reminds me of his Embassytown which dealt at more length on some of the issues of language Le Guin raises in this book. Embassytown I both enjoyed reading for the mental stimulation and liked as a pleasant recreational read.
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Old 01-15-2019, 08:26 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by issybird View Post
[...] Since I'm not grounded at all in classic sci-fi, I'm going to be interested to learn how this fits in with the literature. I know it was groundbreaking and it gets a pass for that. [...]

I agree that the relationship between Genly and Estraven was central to the story, but I didn't think there was enough plot. Once you strip out the world-building, both Genly's exegesis and the supporting historical and mythical texts, there was very little story left.
It seems to me that The Left Hand of Darkness fits very well with the styling of sci-fi in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I think that including gender as a theme is really the main thing, perhaps the only thing, that makes this book stand out from the crowd. I always thought Le Guin wrote well, I liked her voice, and so I generally enjoyed reading her books, but her stories have failed to be memorable for me.

I don't think your assessment ("very little story left") is unfair, but I also think it's true of a lot of science fiction, particularly of that period but even more recent works can suffer this problem. For many sci-fi writers science/concept is king, character and plot are just there to expose the idea. Some authors, such as Le Guin, write/wrote well enough, and about the human aspects enough, to get away with it (for my tastes), others not so much. (Which isn't to say this was the case with all science fiction; Asimov remains a favourite of mine because he told good stories.)

Quote:
Originally Posted by astrangerhere View Post
[...]The introduction! There is nothing I did not love about this introduction! [...]
Yes, both Le Guin's and in my edition the China Miéville intro' were interesting to read - although I felt that Miéville went a bit overboard, apparently assuming the reader had read it before so he didn't have to worry about spoiling. But my favourite lines from Le Guin's introduction were:
Quote:
The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.
The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
I like the seeming paradox, and I like that it reveals how a book like this can be appropriated to say what people want it to say - which, it seems to me, is what happened with this book and feminism. I don't doubt that Le Guin was exploring gender in this book, but I also don't doubt that it would have been a very different book if it was trying to be actively feminist.

But an author doesn't get to decide how their books will be received. In hoping to say in words what cannot be said in words, in asking readers to interpret, we must also accept that sometimes the interpretation will not be what we expected.

Quote:
Originally Posted by astrangerhere View Post
I agree! It brought to mind Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy where her narrator, having no concept of gender defaulted to using feminine pronouns for everyone in the books. I know this is probably heresy, but I feel like Leckie pulled it off better. [...]
I don't think this heresy, I just think it was written in a very different time with a much better understanding how such a thing would be received (in part thanks to The Left Hand of Darkness.)

The structure of the The Left Hand of Darkness effectively insists that male pronouns for generic use by Genly and Genly's perspective were most appropriate. For other parts, some other form of pronoun might have been better, and might have emphasised the difference more, but this was 1969, it is an open question how much of this sort of thing Le Guin's editors and publishers would have accepted, and getting past those, how the readers would have reacted.

And, besides, even more recent books that try gender-free pronouns get mixed responses. You like Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer whereas I did not, and (a fairly minor) part of my dislike of that book is what I felt was clumsy emphasis of the pronoun choice.
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