So Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those classics that was instantly hailed on its release, winning Hugo and Nebula awards and reshaping conversations around the genre. There’s no discussion to be had about whether it’s a major work (it is) and whether anyone interested in the genre should read it (you should), but it is worth looking to see how well it holds up nearly half a century after it was published. Fortunately, the answer is “very well.”

Most of the obvious places where it would show its age are neatly worked around by the setting: The protagonist is the point man for first contact on a new world. So, no, there’s no internet or GPS or anything… but it’s easy to think that’s because he’s on a primitive world, and that in the normal, tech-rich society he comes from of course people have those things.

(This is almost certainly not true, and it’s probably canonically disprovable: A thing I hadn’t realized is that this novel takes place in a future history Le Guin invented, with ten or so novels, and as many short stories, in it. This is apparent in the book—the references to backstory feature too many proper nouns and specific events to just be flavoring—but this book stands alone just fine.)

The one thing that does seem weird is the gender attitudes of the protagonist, who believes in a very, very strong kind of gender essentialism that seems odd to a modern reader. What’s not clear to me, though, is whether that’s supposed to be a tic of the protagonist’s society, to set him off in more clear context to the gender-fluid society he’s contacting, or if he’s supposed to embody “normal” attitudes at the time the book was written in the 1960s. Either is plausible, which feels a bit weird in its own right.

But so anyway, yeah, the exploration of gender is clearly a big thing that the book is about, and if it feels somewhat conservative in that exploration from today’s perspectives (it uses male pronouns throughout, it assumes a kind of heteronormativity that Le Guin later regretted), it was certainly novel at the time.

But of course, it’s also about more than just that. A book that just had one thing to say wouldn’t be a masterpiece that holds up for so long. There’s also an adventure novel in here, and a novel of political intrigue, and thoughts about what makes societies and governments good, and about the difficulties of communicating across cultures, and a lot more.

So yeah: Major classic, holds up well. You should read it, and I should have read it forever ago.


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