Some of book reviews in CBR have been a trip to the memory lane. This is no exception. When I think of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, I’m transported back to next library of my life, the central library of my childhood town. No more small branch library, welcome the main library. I was in the big league now. Well, relatively speaking: even in a library and education friendly Finland a small town’s main library in the mid-1980s is still heavily constrained by budgets and even physical size.
The library was in an old wooden house from the early 20th century, situated very near the centre of the town. It was orange from the outside. What it lacked in size it more than alleviated by having the tightest, most cramped layout even seen before or since anywhere ever. Books, books, books. From the floor to the ceiling. Shelves separated by the narrowest of aisles – probably couldn’t squeeze in now. It was heaven.
The year of the discovery of The Left Hand of Darkness was around 1984. It was a Finnish translation in a classic sci-fi book series, and it was released 1976. A black cover with an ominous silvery paint depicting a menacing face. George Lucas must have seen it in the 70s: it’s clearly Emperor Palpatine.
I made a lot of discoveries and long-time (book) companions in the library but The Left Hand of Darkness has the top spot. (In Finnish it’s called Pimeyden vasen käsi. I have never read this book in its original English and probably never will. It’s the same with Watership Down, a.k.a. Ruohometsän kansaa.)
Enough of me – again. The book.
Genly Ai is the ambassador of Ecumen to Gethon, aka, Winter. The latter name is apt for a planet which is mostly covered in snow and life is possible in the thin strip around the equator.
The Gethenians are slow, snow-bound society perhaps on the level of Earth in the 1950s. They are peaceful, no warring, very little violence.
Ai is light years away on a mission to persuade Gethen to join the Ekumen, a gathering of planets. It’s an Einsteinian universe when it comes to physical travelling. However, a communication device, Ansible, allows for instantaneous communication. You can share ideas but projecting power is harder–nearly impossible– given the vast distances between the member planets.
Genly Ai is lonely. Surprisingly, not so much due to the distance to the Ekumen, and being the only person in the planet (to be as non-threatening as possible) but rather because he is radically different from the Gethenians: most of the time they don’t exhibit any outwards signs of either sex. Once a month, during what is called kemmer, they become sexually active and develop either male or female genitalia. Thus, during any kemmer, they can either father a child or become pregnant. Genly Ai, a black man from Earth, stands out because he is constantly ‘in heat’; from the Gethenians point of view, he is an aberration.
I wonder why Ursula K. LeGuin chose her protagonist to be a black man. Perhaps it being late 60s and thus a nod to civil rights. Maybe she wanted to bring to our subconsciousness the negative stereotype that historically, black men have been portrayed as aggressive and hypersexual. (Naturally, Genly Ai is neither.) And that stereotype could not be farther from the generally non-violent, non-belligerent Gethenians, except that assassinations and certain punishments such as exile, in which after 24 hours an exiled person can be killed on sight, do exist.
We start the book in Erhenrang, the capitol of Karhide, a feudal nation – of very independent families or domains – ruled by a more or less mad king names Argaven XV. Karhide’s rival nation in Gethen is Orgoreyn which is centrally managed nation resembling a mid-1900s communist East European nation. So, the political systems of the two nations are opposites.
Argaven and his government is at a ceremonial opening of an arch. The king lays the last bricks to complete the building of the structure. The prime minister, lord Estraven, approaches Genly Ai and invites him to dinner.
Estraven reveals to Ai that he no longer has the king’s ear and he expects to be exiled from Karhide. One reason for it that he has tried to get king to see Genly Ai; Argaven does not like that idea that Gethen is not the centre of the universe but one tiny speck in it. There is fear; it is powerful; it can be exploited for political gain by Estraven’s political enemies.
And so Estraven is exiled. He manages barely to escape to Orgoreyn where he becames a labourer before picked up by a powerful politican whose secretary Estraven becomes.
Eventually, Genly Ai also finds himself in Orgoreyn. All starts well for him. Eventually, even Orgoreyn does not want him and the new situation he presents. With the help of Estraven they escape and take a long and arduous trek to salvage the situation.
Interspersed in the book at old Gethenian stories, and earlier reports by secret Ecumen missions. Stories flesh out the society but are grim and melancholic. Ursula K. LeGuin also introduces a lot of Gethenian words, such as the aforementioned kemmer, shifgrethor (simply, it’s someone’s position/face, power), karhosh, Nusuth! and more. There is even an appendix of calendar and time.
What I tried to describe before does not do justice to The Left Hand of Darkness and the weird, bleak, dreamy, cold and snowy world Ursula K. LeGuin has built. In the story Genly Ai transforms from an outsider to an insider, through hardship, friendship and sacrifice.
P.S. Reading about a snowy planet during winter when it’s been snowing (goodbye for now, five-month November) has been comforting. It’s grim up north, but we like it.