The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Much like the previous books in the Hainish Cycle, I found this book to be full of interesting ideas but delivered through average execution. The story is about a Human emissary to an alien world called Winter, where the intelligent life forms are stubborn, bureaucratic humanoids who can change their gender when it comes time to mating. The largest differences between our world and the world of Winter is that with no dominant sex, traditional gender roles do not exist. The human is actually considered a pervert by the natives, as he is always ready for mating while the alien life forms only mate at certain times of the monthly cycle.
Beyond that there is some additional world building relating to the different governing faction on the planet and the mathematics and calendar that heavily depend on the number 13. The perspective is mainly told through the human protagonist, although it does shift to a secondary character named Estraven who at times is not trusted by the human and at others is his only ally. I found these shifts in perspective frustrating as they weren’t marked by anything and typically happened in chapters with little dialogue so I wasn’t even aware the perspective shifted right away on several instances. Better executed are a few chapters that go into folklore and history of this alien planet, which are more clearly marked and provide some interesting context.
One of the most common criticisms of science fiction are books where characters and places all have weird names and which keep it from reading like a typical story. I actually found that to be the case here, as aside from three characters (the human, Estraven, and the King (who is usually referred to as the King)) the names were all so complex that I rarely retained them and had no interest in trying to pronounce them in my head while reading to myself. Perhaps this would have been alleviated by reading this as an audiobook, but between the jargon names and the unclear shifting perspectives I found this to be a frustrating read at times.
The plot is fairly straight forward, with the human emissary trying to open trade (mainly of thought and culture) with this alien world, which will primarily be accomplished via the use of an ansible that allows for instant communication across the universe. The trip to the planet is seventeen years from the nearest inhabited world, and “a lifetime” away from Earth. What should have been an easy sell is complicated by the bureaucratic intrigue of the government officials and the rivaling governmental factions on the planet. The result is a journey that leads across secured borders, into prison stints and a 700+ mile journey over barren frozen landscape. The best passages deal with the human’s interactions with Estraven, as the two try to understand each other and mind-speak (I picture the Vulcan mind meld) to each other. There are clearly some interesting relationship dynamics between the human and the androgynous/multisexual aliens.
The previous books I’ve read that have been both Hugo and Nebula award winners have all been fantastic, and while this book was interesting I was let down overall in comparison.