The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
While reading this novel, I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1969 because of the themes that are so pervasive in today’s ongoing dialogue about gender. I haven’t read any of Le Guin’s work prior to this, but I can understand her ascendance to the heights of the sci-fi/fantasy canon. The one caution I have for the more casual genre fiction reader is that there are a lot of words from Le Guin’s Hanish universe and that can be quite confusing at first. You don’t want to get your kemmer and your shifgrethor mixed up. If you can assimilate these terms and flip back to the glossary to remember the various words that the people of Gethen use to describe their frigid weather, you’ll be okay. Le Guin was also a poet and I think it really shows in what I like to call the thesis of The Left Hand of Darkness:
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.
The humans of the Hanish universe are people that are experimental branches on the evolutionary tree. Genetically they are are all very similar except for one or a few modifications that make them distinct from the others. Genly Ai is a Terran native who has come to the planet Winter as an envoy whose task is to convince the king of Karhide or one of the several other kingdoms of Gethen to join the Ekumen, an alliance of other humanoid planets. As the name Winter would suggest, these humans are adapted to withstand remarkably low temperatures. The other (and much more interesting) fact about the inhabitants of Gethen is that they are ambisexual; in other words, they are completely androgenous for most of their reproductive cycle … until they’re not. This leads to a great deal of tension between Genly and the natives. He wants to classify them and finds the idea of a pregnant king strange while the people of Karhide and abroad call him a pervert (a Gethian term for a human that remains in a fixed gender state outside of mating).
Part political intrigue and part treatise on gender roles and the way they shape human interactions and society, this novel is remarkable because it manages to sneak in romance elements without the reader even really noticing until the very end of the book. Estraven, the prime minister and adviser to King Argaven, attempts to persuade the king into forming an alliance with the Ekumen but by pushing him continuously he only incurs Argaven’s wrath and finds himself exiled and out of a job. Genly too is affected by this shift in power and Estraven does everything in his power to help Genly out of it. They travel on sledges over great distances together to see Genly’s mission through and along the way come to an understanding of each other. Genly’s internal struggle throughout is centered around not thinking in the way he has been conditioned to by his own masculine behaviors. That in this place there is no binary. Hope and despair, light and dark, male and female, beginnings and endings all exist in a grand circle that feeds into itself.
There are some pretty significant Taoist influences and Le Guin takes an opportunity to explore spirituality in addition to the other themes that are threaded throughout her work. This story is not driven primarily by a plot but more by concepts except in a few places where it feels very grounded and much more easy to follow. This one is definitely a mind-stretcher, so pick it up if you’re in the mood for philosophical pondering or you’re looking for a unique experience.