Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

by Roxanne Dubois last modified 2017-01-08T12:23:35-04:00
When it was published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness reaped the following year’s Hugo and Nebula prizes, two major awards for science fiction writing. The book’s success helped to propel Ursula K. Le Guin as a figurehead for the genre. The Left Hand of Darkness is a brilliant, imaginative and provocative work that raised questions of great relevance for its time, and for today.

The tale is set on a planet named Gethen, where the climate is cold enough to warrant the surname “Winter”. Two great nations share this planet, but neither is aware that there is life beyond their world. The inhabitants of this planet have their own ways, their governance and politics, and they also have physical attributes that differ from that of the representative sent from outer space to make contact. In fact, they have no assigned gender. Physical male or female traits only surface once a month at time of “kemmer”. Sex plays no other role in individual interactions or in anything else for the remainder of the cycle. As such, questions about gender roles and functions are non-existent on Gethen.

The story is told from the perspective of Genly Ai, The Envoy, sent from a confederation of planets called the Ekumen. He has a mission to try and secure commitments from either nation on Gethen to express interest in joining the Ekumen. The task is complex: Genly must first get to know the customs and the history, the way in which nations make decisions. He will make mistakes along the way, and will have very few resources to right those wrongs. It is up to him to explain what lies beyond the atmosphere, and why he has come all this way. “But the Ekumen is not essentially a government at all.” explains Genly. “It is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political, and as such is of course mostly a failure; but its failure has done more good for humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors.”

The Envoy works with a partner, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, a politician from Karhide, the first nation where Genly sets foot. A series of events will lead Estraven to be exiled to the other nation, Orgoreyn. The relationship they develop is tense, at first, but circumstances will pull them closer. Genly reflects early on about the isolation he is feeling as a visitor, as someone who comes from another world and cannot relate to others the same way he does to those at home: “A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.”

The theme of isolation is present throughout Genly’s mission on Winter, as well as during Estraven’s exile to another nation. More so, the cold climate setting makes for incredible winter descriptions. A significant portion of the novel describes the pair travelling more than 800 miles across a glacier and ice-covered land, in blizzard conditions of the heart of winter. Their race to brave arduous weather and make it across the border is truly spectacular. As Genly remarks about the trip, which applies just as well to the entire novel: “It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

The questions raised about the role of gender in the way we go about our existence as humans are brilliant. What does life look like when it is not only women who can carry children? When attractions are based on people’s personality and connection as opposed to their prescribed gender? The character of Genly Ai carries with him some preconceived notions of gender similar to those we would have here on Earth. He tries to appear strong and to hide his tears when he gets emotional: reflexes that mystify the people of Gethen.

The paper edition I read was part of the Penguin Galaxy Series. It included an insightful introduction by Neil Gaiman, author of many works including the comic book series The Sandman. The series has printed a beautiful edition of six major workers in science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a spectacular introduction to Le Guin’s work, and to science fiction in general. It is a contemplative and slow read, one that questions some of the things we take most for granted. It is a wonderful winter read, so long as it is read from the comfort of a warm heated place.

5/5

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Penguin Galaxy Series

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