Ursula Le Guin paints a world in her book "The Left Hand of Darkness", that is almost impossible to imagine, and that's what makes it so interesting. Le Guin's alien world of Gethen is one of perpetual winter, filled with a people much like our own. The primary difference between our species and theirs is that they are all of a neutral sex, with the exception of a few days a month, where they decide which sex they want to be. This difference seems silly, and almost impossible to us, for the duality of male and female is so ingrained in our lives.
The Left Hand of Darkness may be about gender, and it may be about weather, but it's also very clearly about the schism between words and real world referents.
I really enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness. It was a pretty entertaining novel for me - the journey across the Ice was a bit of a bummer because too much of it was devoted to purely describing them pulling the sledge across various areas, but other than that, it was good. I liked the political intrigue, the numerous backstabbings and the excitement that comes from following two characters who are running for their lives.
The issues of duality, competition, war, and progress bring to mind the Jane Elliott "blue eyes" classroom study. That link is knowledgeable, but not the most approachable, so let me summarize. In order to teach a lesson on discrimination to a homogenous Iowa elementary school classroom, she began an experiment where she declared children with blue eyes 'better' than the others.
There is a fascinating interplay between light and dark, and the role of shadows in "The Left Hand of Darkness." Perhaps most interesting is the concept of shifgrethor, a code of honor amongst the Karhidians, which "comes from an old word for shadow" (247). There is also, among the Handdarata, a focus on the "un"--that which seems to be the opposite of what is. In many respects, the Karhidians seem to be defined more by what they are not, by what is unseen, and by what traditionally is thought to obscure.
While my experience with this may not be universal, I found myself somewhat alienated by Genly Ai's perspective on the events he related. I was much more drawn in to the narrative on those occasions when it was related by Estraven. The factor that drew me out of Genly Ai's perspective was consistently his insistence on applying his particular conceptions of gender to the Gethenians he encountered. Estraven, unfettered by the need to place his world into inapplicable terms, is better able to focus in on the more flowing parts of hte story.
I'm still interested in what happens in this novel in terms of race, and the representation of racial issues in the future. We might of tried to touch on it in class, but the overwhelming struggle over the meaning and the philosophy of gender in society was definitely something that took over. It clearly has for almost all readers of the novel, down to the feminist writers who proclaimed that Le Guin's use of the male pronoun was the number one most anti-feminist act of all time.
Ursula Le Guin, though she makes a big fuss out of the "thought-experimental" nature of her novel, and explicitly says that she's not trying to make a political statement such as "we damned well ought to be androgynous" - but even so, she seems to intentionally pad levels of ambiguity -- maybe even excuses, plausible deniability -- into any possible "message" of her novel.
Since the religion that I most closely identify with is Buddhism, I was pleasantly surprised to see some Buddha-flavored (for lack of a better description) ideas emerging as the overarching themes or conflicts of the novel. Though little actually happens plot-wise, Le Guin has a very distinctive, almost sarcastic "writer's voice" that gets the reader caught up in this meandering philosophical journey.
I'm punking out on this response, along with everyone else, apparently. Though (as I have said repeatedly) I was really into the movie for this week, Le Guin didn't really do anything for me.