This was an interesting book to read. For much of it, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. By the end, I realised that it’s quite a powerful and thoughtful book.
In a nutshell
The reader is introduced to an envoy, representing a kind of federation of planets, who has been on the world of Winter for a few years. His mission is to get the planet to join the federation, but to complete this mission, he has to navigate his way through alien politics and find a way to connect with what the world and its people are really all about.
This was a book of two halves. The first half being dull, and the second being rather brilliant.
Mission: I didn’t buy into the mission (get Winter to join the federation). The planet is so far away from the other planets that those in the Envoy’s ship had to go into stasis for 17 years to get there and continuous communication with the other planets is not feasible. So what’s the point? There’s no mention of any urgency behind this mission. It makes the story feel flat.
Plot: Politics dominates the first half of the book. The problem is, there’s no introduction to the world. Alien terms, concepts, dates and times are used frequently, and only a few of them are explained at any point (and when they are explained, it’s chapters later). I found it hard to connect with what was happening. Chapter 11 is where the real action starts, and it becomes less about inventing strange new words, and more about the people.
Viewpoint: The viewpoint character is the Envoy, but not always. Sometimes another character narrates, sometimes no character narrates and we get a folktale. Sometimes the chapter is one long diary extract. The problem is, the tone remains the same, and the layout of the book never changes (so you could be a page into the next chapter before you realise that the Envoy isn’t speaking).
The world and people: Okay, so the world is always in winter. There’s not much of the physical environment that’s really alien (apart from the continual ice age thing). The people are mainly sexless – only becoming male or female when they come into ‘heat’. Sexuality is fluid, yet Le Guin uses male pronouns to describe characters and gives powerful people stereotypical male qualities, only giving them female qualities when they seem to be flirting or trying to allure. This is a big turn-off, but probably a product of the time it was published (1960s).
Peril: The first half of the book is dull, but Le Guin kicks off the second half with a pivotal event that puts the main character in danger. This is when the book starts to get interesting.
Characters: The main character (the Envoy) is pretty one-dimensional in the first half of the book. The second half makes things more exciting, but he isn’t proactive. He reminds me of Twilight’s Bella Swan – things happen to him. People get him out of tricky situations. It’s not a great quality for a main character. However, the second half of the book does make him a more empathetic character – he starts to connect with the aliens and this allows the reader to connect with him.
The main way people define themselves is by relating to others. Keeping the main character isolated, on an alien world, for the first half of the book makes him a strange kind of anti-character. It’s almost like he’s just a vessel for the narrative, rather than a rounded character.
Purpose: It’s not until the end of the book that the true message of the book is revealed. You begin to understand why the start of the book felt so weird. To me, the book is all about understanding others, and bridging the gap between people who seem too different from ourselves to comprehend. It’s one of those books that keeps you thinking.
Why did I keep reading?
As you may know, I’m not opposed to abandoning a book. There are far too many good books out there to waste your time on one you don’t like.
I forced myself to keep reading this because it has a great reputation and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Also, I felt like I deserved a pay-off for enduring the first ten chapters.
I’ve got mixed feelings about The Left Hand of Darkness. It starts tepid and remote, and makes a sudden switch to perilous, emotional and thoughtful. I can see why the book was written that way – starting alien and becoming familiar as the Envoy and the reader start to understand the aliens, but it makes it a bit of a trial to read.