You can’t live in Portland and not know about Ursula LeGuin. A few years ago she and Margaret Atwood shared the stage at Portland Arts and Lectures, a conversation I still remember several years later. It’s inexplicable then that until this effort, I had read only one of her books: Lavinia. This is largely because I generally don’t seek out science fiction; I usually wait for it to find me. I was struck by her remarks at the National Book Awards in December and realized it was time to dive further into her work. I’m glad I did. My journey began with The Left Hand of Darkness published 45 years ago.
“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.” These are the opening words of Genly Ai, an envoy sent from Terra to Gethen by the Ekumen of Known Worlds. The Ekumen is a federation, whose primary purpose appears to be facilitating contact among worlds inhabited by humans.
He has been sent alone to a bitterly cold planet whose name means Winter. Covered in glaciers, the planet has a narrow band of latitudes that the Gethenians occupy. There is little biodiversity, no beasts of burden, food is limited. Genly’s mission is to observe and to invite the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. Genly views the Gethenians as rather primitive, wrapped in social rituals, and made stranger by the fact that they are androgynous much of their life cycle.
And what are the Gethenians to make of Genly? He claims to be from another world, with only a spaceship to show for it. Genly’s permanent male gender is viewed as at best strange and at worst a perversion. His offer of an interplanetary alliance is viewed with suspicion; he is used politically, and eventually is imprisoned in a work camp to slowly die.
The story is also told by Estravan: the Karhidian minister who initially befriends Genly. Karhide’s king exiles Estravan suddenly, and he must flee. When Genly is imprisoned by Orgoreyn, rival to Karhide, it is Estravan that rescues Genly. Estravan is determined to return Genly to Karhide, but they must cross over 1000 miles of an ice sheet to avoid recapture. During the journey, Genly begins to understand Estravan’s androgyny and how it has influenced his ability to trust Estravan.
Le Guin’s art is in telling the story well, taking the reader forward and backward in time, to flesh out the details of the planet she has invented. A good read, timeless in the telling.