After reading the epic Foundation series of novels by Asimov, I was in the mood for a change of pace in science fiction. I turned to another brilliant author, Ursula K. Le Guin, and her classic 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness.
I vaguely remember being told about this novel when I was in college, though I didn’t read it then. At the time, the description that I was given was more or less “a book entirely about linguistic, social and cultural details.” This description isn’t completely inaccurate, but The Left Hand of Darkness is so much more — it is a fascinating study of a culture that is completely alien to our own, thanks to one, single, fundamental, biological difference in its humans.
The novel is set on the planet known to the natives as Gethen, but to visitors as “Winter” due to its worldwide cold climate. At the moment, however, there is only one visitor to Winter: a man named Genly Ai, an emissary from the Ekumen, a collection of worlds that have formed treaties to encourage scientific, financial and cultural trading. The Ekumen always approaches new worlds at first with a single emissary, who must then gain approval for a larger group of representatives to arrive on world. As the novel begins, Genly has, with the help of Prime Minster Estrahaven of the country of Karhide, won an audience with the King of Karhide to discuss an alliance with the Ekumen.
It has been a particularly challenging assignment up to this point, because the people of Winter are unique amongst the known species of humans in the Ekumen: they are androgynous, having neither male nor female characteristics except once a month, when they go into “kemmer,” and can become either male or female for reproduction. Because of this significant biological difference, the politics and culture of Winter are fundamentally different from any other known world, and Genly has had to tread carefully in order to make his way into the elite social circles of Karhide.
One the very eve of his meeting with the King, however, Genly is betrayed: Estrahaven withdraws his support, and Genly must go on without any backing from the nobility. The meeting is a failure; oddly, however, Estrahaven is also declared a traitor of the country the same day and exiled. Genly does not understand the meaning of this turn of events, and its connection to the curious social concept of shifgrethor that dictates Karhide customs. He is forced to carry on with his mission without aid. Powerful forces are at work, however, that will not only endanger the goals of the Ekumen but also Genly’s life.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a slow, thoughtful novel — and I do not mean that as a criticism, but just an observation. There is much, much detail given about the history, culture and society of the Gethenians, often in myths and legends of the people, interweaved as chapters between those of the main narrative. The book is really a musing on the role that gender plays in our society and politics, and how things might look different if it were not an issue. Le Guin is not subtle about some of her thoughts: the Gethenians, though they can commit acts of violence like any humans, have had a history completely free of war. This absence is attributed to the lack of gender-based conflict and passion.
I read the book slowly, usually only one or two chapters at a time. It picks up pace dramatically in the final third, however, as Genly ends up in deadly peril. It is in this final third, as well, that the reader realizes that the novel is partly a love story.
The novel, when first released, was harshly criticized by feminist theorists, largely because it was viewed as treating homosexual relationships in a negative light. Part of the difficulty is that Le Guin uses masculine pronouns to describe the Gethenians, though as noted they are all androgynous. (To say more would give away the story too much, I think.)
Today, however, the novel seems increasingly relevant, as the United States comes to grips with the reality that transgender people exist and that they are as deserving of equal rights and dignity as everyone else. Though it is not clear if this was originally intended by Le Guin, the struggles that Genly Ai has in coming to accept the different nature of Gethenian sex and gender parallel the struggles that many Americans have in accepting the differences of transgender people. But, in the novel, Genly Ai comes to understand and appreciate those differences, and all of us can, too.
It is perhaps worth noting that Left Hand is a “low-tech” science fiction novel: the Gethenians themselves, though not primitive, have never had a need or desire to develop advanced science and technology. They have primitive motorized vehicles, but no airplanes; space travel is viewed by most as a fantasy, an attitude that makes Genly’s mission more perilous. The mixture of advanced and primitive attributes in Gethenian society makes the novel quite fascinating to read by itself.
I imagine The Left Hand of Darkness is not for everyone, in its challenging ideas, dense detail and careful pace. But it is undeniably a classic of science fiction literature, and an insightful must-read for those willing to make the effort.