Review Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness

Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin

By the time I read Left Hand Of Darkness in the 1990s, science fiction novels addressing issues of gender and sexuality were, if not mainstream, certainly not revolutionary. Not so when Le Guin published this landmark book in 1969. This is the story of Ai, sent to the planet Gethen to convince its citizens to join a confederation of planets. Ai’s mission is by turns stymied and complicated by the fact that Gethen is a populated by ambisexual people for whom Ai’s conceptions of gender and sex make no sense and with whom Ai struggles to connect.

The book is like much of the science fiction that came out during the New Wave era — a social thought experiment. What would happen to religion, political debate, and the home if gender were removed and sex was not a fixed construction. That description could make this book seem like heavy lifting. It isn’t. Le Guin can write, and the book moves through its socio-political theorizing easy as the plot propels Ai from unfamiliar situation to unfamiliar situation. It’s been almost twenty years since I read this, but there are scenes that I still remember vividly. That should tell you something about the power of the book to both force inquiry into gender and sex but also to captivate the reader. If you have any tolerance for the confines of science fiction (we are talking about space flight in the distant future here) than I cannot recommend this one highly enough.



Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller

Top five novel of the small-group-keeps-knowledge-alive-in-post-apocalyptic world sub genre of science fiction. You either love this kind of novel or you don’t. I love them, and have read scores, A Canticle for Leibowitz is among the best. It spans hundreds of years, and includes scores of characters all involved one way or another in the preservation of dimly understood science from before a nuclear war wiped out much of civilization. It is very much a book of its time (1960), a warning against nuclear holocaust, and heavy handed in a way much of the writing from the silver age of science fiction was.

In general, science fiction doesn’t age well. Yesterday’s future hold little interest. Only the best books, the ones that touch on more than a proposed future, but also on questions of character, or the larger forces which inspire humanity survive. A Canticle for Leibowitz is that kind of book and if you can get past the sometimes purple-ish prose, its worth the time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.