The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
ACE Books, 1969 – 304 pages
If you hate science fiction and would never consider yourself feminist, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was written for you. Yes, the book is set on another planet populated by male-female aliens, but its richly complex prose defies genre and the aliens in many ways are more “human” than any Earth dweller. Much can be gleaned from Le Guin’s cultural and political commentary, but ultimately The Left Hand of Darkness examines the tremendous power of the interpersonal relationship and the universal human need to connect– with others and with our own internal worlds.
The Left Hand of Darkness follows Genly Ai, an intergalactic diplomat representing the coalition of humanoid worlds known as the Ekumen. He aims to enlist a potential member planet, Gethen, a frozen tundra the Ekumen refer to as Winter. Ai, a native of the planet Terra fits our concept of the human male, tall, bearded, deep-voiced, and (Le Guin discretely adds) dark-skinned. He serves as ambassador not only for the Ekumen, but for the reader as well. Gethen’s humanoid species resembles Ai such that he can pass as native, but their cultural and physical differences make them distinctly alien.
The reader joins Ai two years into his task in the kingdom of Karhide, one of Gethen’s two major countries. Ai has made little progress, though he seems to have convinced the Karhiddish Prime Minister of the value of joining the Ekumen. Moreover, Ai’s sexual oddity among the androgyne Gethens marks him a “pervert .” The people of Gethen are “ambisexual,” spending the majority of time as asexual “potentials.” They only adopt gendered attributes once-monthly, during a period of sexual receptivenesss and high fertility, called kemmer, in which individuals can assume male or female attributes, depending on context and relationships. The Gethens perceive Ai’s constant sexual readiness as obscene and repulsive. As the solitary representative of a world where “the heaviest single factor in one’s life is whether one’s born male or female,” Ai (and by extension the reader) must question a central element of his identity. In contrast to 1969 America, Gethen allows the reader to explore a world where gender is temporary.
As a foreigner, Ai must adapt to the social expectations of Karhide. He is stubbornly incapable of grasping shifgrethor, or shadow, the intricate set of unspoken social rules that dictate Karhidish interactions. Thus, when Karhide’s Prime Minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, tries to openly express his support for Ai’s mission, Ai is perplexed. Estraven, Ai’s strongest political ally in Karhide, is deemed a traitor for advocating the interests of Ai and the Ekumen. He is banished from the country, and his continued presence is deemed punishable by death. After this revelation, Ai’s audience with the king flounders. Ai is spared, but all his political capital in Karhide is spent. To continue the Ekumen’s mission, Ai leaves for Orgoreyn, the neighboring country on Gethen.
In Orgoreyn, themes of cross-cultural communication and social norms surface again. For these people, shifgrethor demands a smile on every face, and maintenance of productive spirit. Yet there is an unspoken aura of fear, including the potential of being sent to gulag-esque “Voluntary Farms” as (often arbitrary) punishment for non-governmental compliance. While Ai seems to be convincing Orgoreyn’s leaders to join the Ekumen, he is once again blindsided. Overnight, he is sent to a far-northern work camp to meet his death by cold, labor, and sterilizing drugs.
At this point, exactly halfway through the book– to the page– a pivotal shift away from the political and toward the interpersonal begins. For the first time, Estraven narrates a chapter, allowing us to enter the alien perspective. To the surprise of both Ai and the reader (who has seen Estraven only through Ai’s eyes), Estraven goes to great lengths to save Ai. After breaking out of the work camp, the pair begin the long trek across the Gobrin Glacier back to Karhide, where Estraven believes they will finally be able to maneuver acceptance of the Ekumen treaty. The journey onto the ice strips the societal and political confusion of earlier chapters, allowing complete focus on the relationship between Ai and Estraven.
On the glacier, the narrative transformation intensifies. The world of the book is distilled into two tiny lives amid a “silent vastness” of white. As Estraven puts it, “up here on the ice, each of us is singular, isolate, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he is from his.” In such isolation, neither is alien. Their similarity proves no revelation for Estraven who, despite the shadow of shifgrethor, fully accepted Ai and his Ekumen mission of peace from the beginning. It is Ai, the reader’s avatar, who did not venture to fully trust until this moment. Ai comes to realize what Le Guin so succinctly states in her 1976 introduction to the novel: “if you look at us [humans, Terrans] at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are [androgynous].” Duality and wholeness do not preclude each other. With gender, and a host of social divisions, the “two are one, life and death, lying / together like lovers in kemmer, / like hands joined together, / like the end and the way.” Read for yourself to discover whether Estraven and Ai succeed in unifying their two worlds.
We experience Ai’s time on Gethen through a series of transcripted communications sent to the Ekumen– including his own observations, myths of the native cultures, and another character’s account. As with several Fem-SF authors, Le Guin’s anthropological background informs her writing. The interpolation of cultural myths and practices with traditional narrative creates a more fragmented and complex reading experience. For a 21st century reader, this innovation may be hard to appreciate, but the (primarily male-authored) science fiction of the time was markedly straightforward and linear.
Le Guin’s exploration of these complex thought-experiments arises from the context of her historical moment. War, international political stalemate, and the rumblings of social change ripped into Le Guin’s contemporary reality; a world plagued by fear of the “other.” As the title indicates, the book centers on the inversion of the other: initially we relate most to Ai (the male), yet the true focus is Estraven (the more effeminate); clear, sunny weather proves the more deadly than a blizzard on the polar ice; darkness, rather than light, is “right”. Similarly, this book could invert even the views of the SF-hating non-feminist. It succeeds on its own merits as a novel, and long after the final page the characters will linger with you—regardless of their sex.