The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve been off-line for at least a few weeks and so have a few books I could review, though I need get back to my blog doing the Odyssey as well. The book I want to start with is hands-down the classic novel by Ursula Le Guin which rightly won her both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, The Left Hand of Darkness. I would like to remind readers of my blog that I often include spoilers.

In the main, I’m not a huge fan of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s work. I read her Earthsea trilogy when that’s all there was to the series, and then read the fourth book when it came out in paperback. Her science fiction interests me more than her fantasy, I’ll admit, and I’ve read a fair few of her short stories. Yet generally her writing strikes me as good rather than great. The Left Hand of Darkness is the exception, albeit not necessarily the only one. This novel epitomizes what is great about science fiction literature as a genre.

Cover of

Cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

The story of the novel describes the culmination of a mission by Genly Ai, a (male) Terran human acting as envoy of the Ekumen (a voluntary association of planets) to the planet Gethen, also known as Winter due to its glacial climate. What makes the planet Gethen unique is that, although like all planets with intelligent life known to the Ekumen it was settled in the remote past by a previous human galactic culture, the people of Gethen are physiologically different than other humans. In particular, Gethenians are androgynous most of the time and only become either male or female temporarily when periodically the sexual cycle which they call kemmer occurs. Moreover, a person from Gethen will be be male sometimes when in kemmer and female at other times in a manner wholly unpredictable for the most part.

Genly Ai is not the first person from the Ekumen to come to Gethen, although he is the first to do so openly. As such, he came aware of the Gethenian physiology and knowing the local language, as well as something of the culture. Naturally that knowledge is incomplete but Ai is intellectually aware of this fact. His emotional awareness of things is really another matter altogether.

Not surprisingly the novel fundamentally addresses the role of gender and to a lesser extent sex in human society and human interpersonal interactions. Particularly the novel addresses the issues involved in a manner which possibly only science fiction can do. Le Guin is careful as well not to postulate simply aliens who are either neither male nor female or both male and female, depending on one’s point of view, because aliens would be simply other. Instead the author deals with humans who are neither/both male nor/and female as seen through the eyes of a fallible human being, Genly Ai, envoy of the Ekumen.

The second viewpoint character is a Gethenian known as Estraven (his surname) who starts the novel as prime minister of Karhide, a kingdom which is one of two major nations in the area of the planet where Ai has come. He (to apply the gendered pronoun Ai uses throughout) has been the benefactor of Ai at court and is the only Gethenian to truly believe Ai. The proofs that Ai has that he is in fact alien to Gethen physiologically and that the ship he arrives in was not built on Gethen, the result of examinations by experts from Karhide, have ultimately been obtained with the help of Prime Minister Estraven.

While Ai attempts as envoy to be respectful and accepting of Gethenian culture and society, in many ways he simply does not get much of the culture he has been immersed in for a couple of years and which he had previously studied. The concept of shifgrethor for example, which is a local form of honor and dominates much of interpersonal interactions, fundamentally eludes him. He also thinks of the Gethenians as being effectively neuter most of the time, rather than as being both male and female. Moreover, Ai never guesses his own danger arising from the political realities on Gethen.

Estraven sees the potential for Gethen of what the Ekumen has to offer and acts as Ai’s protector throughout, even after Estraven loses his own political position. Readers such as myself accept until virtually the end Ai’s implicit assumption that Estraven’s motivations are purely political and therefore platonic. Only when Estraven effectively commits suicide in a society where doing so is anathema did I suddenly rethink what had been happening throughout the book, both the actions of Estraven and of Ai himself. I would call this a classic story of unrequited love, a love unrequited not because it not mutally felt but because one person is unwilling to acknowledge it. For Genly Ai is a heterosexual male and he thinks of Estraven either as male too or as sexless, however much Ai knows Estraven is in fact both male and female. As one can see, while not explicit, homosexuality is all a theme throughout the book at some level. For me at least, this novel is a book to be read a second time before one can fully appreciate it.

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3 Responses to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. Pingback: False expectations « Kaet's Weblog

  2. Thomas Evans says:

    Is it not stated during their polar crossing that their physiologies are too different for any sort of satisfactory encounter? Either way, you have some very good insights here that I totally passed over in my own review. Good post

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