Published on July 24th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve been meaning to read something by Ursula K. LeGuin for some time, as I have never read a Sci-Fi written by a woman, but also because she is a prominent writer, with one of her Earthsea books being adapted, albeit rather poorly, into an animé, Tales of the Earthsea.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a Sci-Fi novel which was published in 1969 and won the Hugo and the Nebula awards much like Dune.
The story is set on the icy planet of Winter, known as Gethen by its inhabitants, the Gethenians. An envoy has been sent down by an interspacial group in order to recruit them into their ring of trade.
The envoy is Genly Ai, a man of Hain, who is tall and dark-skinned and isn’t like humans of Earth despite us all having similar forefathers. The Gethenians in nature appear to look a lot like the Hainish so he manages not to stand out too much. Having already been there a year, we join in the fun just as he is finally attending a meeting with the King of Karhide, which is a nation on Winter.
However before his meeting, he is given an odd and cryptic statement by the Prime Minister, who has been helping to organise this event.
The main flow of the book is about Ai’s struggles to get the world of Gethen in agreement with the Ekumen, the interspacial trade group, but the difference in physiology, politics and culture leaves Ai with little knowledge about how to get things done.
The Gethenians are a unique race as they are all hermaphrodites. They all are of one sex that only changes during a two day period once every month in a process known as “Kemmer”. During kemmer a Gethenians body responds to hormones and the reproductive organ changes into either male or female, depending on the sexual partner that they have found, it is somewhat of a mutual process and undergoing Kemmer without a partner in the same state can be distressing. During kemmer the two will mate and whichever is acting as the female of the pair has a chance in becoming pregnant.
Thanks to this unusual sexual system, the Gethenians are a race of note to the Ekumen and the majority of the novel deals with the Gethenians culture and “wholeness”.
Gethenians have never had a war, have limited technology but advanced political systems tied intrinsically to their code of behaviour called Shifgrethor. Shifgrethor is an etiquette that is rather complex, involving both parties engaging in a communicative war with one another. A man who is adept at Shifgrethor is able to wield a large amount of power other his peers, which proves as a major obstacle to the envoy’s mission when he is faced with the King. It is thought by Ai that the reason why the Gethenians have never warred is due to their lack of dualism as a nation.
Le Guin has blended the fascinating ideas from Science-Fiction, with the engrossing detail of characters and culture from Fantasy.
The dualist themes in this book are everywhere, firstly, the Gethenians are known as “he” despite them being non-gender, this is probably due to the lack of a pronoun in its stead, but also because it feels more general. The concept of androgony is hard for Genly Ai to comprehend and he constantly places gender on different members of the species. The book uses these biased perceptions to comment on the wider reaching issues of sexism within our own society.
Le Guin takes the concept of true gender equality to the highest extreme with this novel, bulldozing romance, war, parenthood and social conducts in its path. The race of Gethen knows no taboo on incest, there is no homosexuality and there is no control/submission within a relationship. A person can be a mother and father at the same time, laying out Freud’s theory of gender learning via the Oedipus complex in one swoop.
The level of quality of writing is unusually high for a SF book, I am used to having to suspend expectations of good prose whenever I pick one up, but this novel could easily be ranked up with writers at least to the level of Tolkien, she has a better concept of pacing too.
The relationship between two of the main characters of the book, Genly Ai and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide, show a difficult and beautiful conception of love between worlds in a pure form. The use of the pronoun ‘he’ becomes particularly useful here as it challenges preconceived notions of relationships and companionship, but most of all it doesn’t make a huge deal out of the many themes that subvert the rules nor does it wish to shy away in fear. It creates the perfect balance to give a complete idea of the situation leaving the reader with their own ideas.
That’s what I love about this book the most, it’s the beautiful way that Le Guin has blended the fascinating ideas from Science-Fiction, with the engrossing detail of character relationships and culture in a Fantasy novel. Like Dune, when you pick the book up you are transported to this world as real as our own and exists beyond the turning of the page. Between chapters sometimes there are stories in the form of folktales or even fables that give extra depth into the world of Gethen, but also the attitudes that come with it. The passivity, the resilience and the awareness that the Gethenian race seem to express that is unlike our own aggression, cowardice and ignorance. They may not be a better race, but they are an interesting one, that can be unpredictable without becoming ridiculous.
Not a may; this is a must read.
This book was chosen recently as a novel that Sci-Fi fans would give to people to get them into Sci-Fi. I am impelled to agree, if someone read this book and said that it didn’t make them think or feel a little differently about our world and its conventions, then I couldn’t recommend any book to them whatever.
A glorious and insightful trip into our own Earthen minds, The Left Hand of Darkness offers a story about discovery of self and others, an adventure into the unknown lands and above all, a lesson in surpassing and redeeming humanity, no less than a must, not a may, read.