I’m disappointed that it’s taken me nearly half a century to discover Ursula K. Le Guin. Perhaps “discover” isn’t the right word; I knew of her existence, but until she passed away earlier this year I hadn’t been motivated to read anything by her. I scored in my purchase of Penguin’s “great masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy” edition in that it contains not only a series introduction by Neil Gaiman, in which he describes Le Guin as having “a poet’s touch and an anthropologist’s eye” but an introduction to the novel by Le Guin herself. I don’t think I’ve ever been so completely won over by an author on the basis of an introduction, but reading Le Guin’s set-up to her own novel, I decided I liked this woman and had done myself a great disservice in waiting so long to explore her work.
In the introduction, Le Guin argues that science fiction is not predictive. Rather, you should view her novel and others like it as a thought experiment. You start with a “what if” and describe the reality as you interpret it. “The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like,” she writes, “and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend you turn to the writers of fiction for such information.”
You can tell by her expression she’s even dialing down the snark.
So as a new fan of this author, I dove in, unsure what I would find. The story takes place on a planet called Gethen, where human ambassador Genly Ai is trying to convince the Gethenians to join the Ekumen, a cooperative assembly of planets kind of like the U.N. but for the solar system. Ai refers to Gethen as “Winter,” because, well, it’s really cold and inhospitable. He gets a reputation for being a bit of a wuss because he needs to wear a coat when it’s 30 degrees outside while the Gethenians are sporting their beach wear.
Typical Gethenian on holiday
There’s lots of court intrigue: Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide (a country on Gethen) gets banished on pain of death by King Argaven either for his support or non-support of Ai’s proposal. He’s replaced by a weasel named Tibe who is also the King’s cousin and likely orchestrated Estraven’s downfall. Oh and by the way, the people of Gethen are ambisexual: they are neither male nor female, but they enter a state called “kemmer” for a few days each month when they can mate, taking on sexual characteristics of either a man or a woman during that time, depending on how the cards fall that lunar cycle. So this book is kind of like Game of Thrones but with weirder sex.
Still not this weird
That last bit, about the Gethenians being neither male nor female, is what most people remember about Left Hand of Darkness, which has taken on a reputation as being a feminist novel. “What if there were no genders?” you might say. “Would everyone be treated equally?” Certainly that is something the novel explores, but it’s not just about gender. It’s about culture and overcoming differences and understanding another race. It’s about duty and love of country. Ultimately, it’s about love and loss.
I went through a range of emotional responses as I read this novel. For the first third, I thought, “This is interesting, with all these elaborate foreign names and unusual alien words like “shifgrethor,” which is a subtle way of communicating that the people of Karhide use to resolve conflict so that everyone can save face. This part of the book proved a little challenging due to all the new vocabulary.
The next third of the book takes on a more adventurous tone. When Genly Ai is arrested and sent to a desolate prison camp, our good friend Estraven breaks him out. It’s a daring escape fraught with danger and hardship. It’s like that awesome prison break movie. . . .
No, not. . .oh fine.
Finally, the last third hit me where I didn’t see it coming, straight in the heart. Against my expectations, Left Hand of Darkness becomes a sort of love story, and the ending hit me in the gut.
Right in the feels. . .
This novel isn’t perfect. A common criticism is that the androgynous Gethenians aren’t really sexless beings: it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but men who may or may not become women for a few days every month. Indeed, as I was reading, I never had a moment where I pictured one of them as a female, unless there was a specific instance of a character taking on a female form during kemmer. If anything, this novel exposes the falsehood that “he” is ever really a gender-neutral pronoun. If I told you the king becomes pregnant, what do you picture?
Please, this isn’t a horror story.
But even if Le Guin failed to paint a true portrait of a genderless society, this novel was written in 1969. That she even made the attempt was daring, and she earned the ground-breaking Nebula and Hugo awards she won (ground-breaking because she was the first female author to win both awards for the same novel, and only the second novelist overall, after Frank Herbert accomplished the same feat for Dune).
Individuality versus dualism is another theme that runs through this novel, and on that note I’ll end with the poem from which the novel gets its name, which Estraven recites to Ai during their time together:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.