Fiction Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness  

I first discovered Ursula K. Le Guin in my last semester at UConn, in the first half of 1994. I'd met almost all of my engineering requirements, needing two computer classes - compilers and graphics. I also needed some additional credits and it turned out they could be in literally anything. So I rounded my college experience out with classes in racquetball (yes I got a credit to play racquetball!), dinosaurs, and science fiction. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed was one of the works we covered in our science fiction class. I absolutely loved it. The entire class actually proved to be rather influential for me - it introduced me to various science fiction movements, an introduction to fanzines, exposure to early debates on the proper term for science fiction, and even an introduction to the "slash" fiction of the 1970s. It was a great class - I was disappointed I never had the opportunity to take the class the professor taught in the fall semesters, covering graphic novels. (I knew some people in my dorm who took it the previous semester thinking they were going to have an easy class since they'd "only" be reading comic books. I recall many people being mystified by the complicated plotlines of Watchmen and understandably shaken by the experience of reading Maus.)

Going from memory, our syllabus consisted of the following works:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss
  • China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
  • Startide Rising by David Brin
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson

I enjoyed all of those works with the possible exception of Frankenstein Unbound - I seem to recall not caring for it but it's been so long I can't remember why - maybe it's time to take it for another spin...

Anyways I've read a variety of Le Guin books since then but for some reason I got around to reading one of her more famous ones, The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel is part of her Hainish Cycle. I'll confess to being far from an expert on the cycle, only having read this and The Dispossessed in that cycle. The universe is one in which a very long time ago humanity was seeded to a number of worlds, Earth among them. The different branches of humanity have many physical and social differences between them. The union of worlds in The Left Hand of Darkness is called the Ekumen. It's not quite like the Federation of Star Trek, it is a much looser arrangement. In this setting faster than light travel is not possible - starships travel close to the speed of light, with time dilation making these long voyages possible. However the worlds are united socially with an exchange of ideas made possible by the ansible, an instantaneous faster-than-light communications device, albeit one of low bandwidth. This is the opposite of universes like that of Traveller's Imperium where FTL travel is possible but communication is limited by the speed of travel.

The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness deals with the Ekumen's envoy, Genly Ai of Earth, sent to the planet Winter (called Gethen by the natives) as a solo representative to encourage the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. He is on his own as is standard for such contacts by the Ekumen.

Winter is, as one can imagine, a cold world. Its habitable region is between two glaciers. It has no axial tilt, with its mild summers caused by the distance of the planet from its star. It is notable for the sexuality of its branch of humanity - the people there are androgynous for the bulk of their month. However in a narrow window they enter a period of kemmer where their normally dormant sexuality emerges and they are filled with a strong desire to mate. In a coupling, one will take on male traits and the other partner female ones. The gender one assumes is variable - the same partners in a couple will likely take on different sexual roles in different couplings. They consider Genly to be something of a deviant, always, from their perspective, in a kemmer state. Outside of kemmer the people of Winter have no interest in sex, inside it it becomes an obsession. In the case of a pregnancy the female gender will be maintained throughout the pregnancy and nursing, otherwise the participants will return to their androgynous states.

Possibly as a result of their unique gender roles, the people of Winter are different from other humans in many ways. The most obvious is they have no concept of gender roles. Though conflict is not uncommon (and much of the novel deals with a territorial dispute between two Gethen nations), all-out war is unknown - conflicts stay localized. Genly spends his time in two nations, learning about the people of Winter, the differences between the nations, their religions, their legends. He encourages the leadership of both nations to join the Ekumen, knowing if one joins its rival will almost certainly do so as well.

As the preceding paragraph indicates, Winter has more than one nation. The two main nations dealt with are rivals, with some hints that they may be approaching their first real war. The leaders of the nations have their own assumptions about what Genly is "really" doing and their own plans on how best to use him for their own purposes. Genly has to learn just who it is he can trust.

In the tradition of the best science fiction Le Guin takes real-world issues and explores them in an otherworldly manner. Winter and its people feel real yet alien - more alien than your typical "funky foeheaded alien of the week" often seen on television. The people of Winter have their own dreams, failures, glories, and dreams. I recommend it strongly.

Image Credit - "TheLeftHandOfDarkness1stEd" by Derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.. Via Wikipedia.

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