Book Review: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
Hey look, time for some quality literature, for once! I’ll get back to something cheap and trashy before long, so don’t worry.
Back in college, I took a class on science fiction literature. Rad. One of the main texts of the class was an anthology of various science fiction short stories, edited by Ursula K. LeGuin. The anthology included a variety of stories, by a variety of authors (including LeGuin’s own “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”). I remember being not very impressed by a lot of the stories, as (at the time) they mostly came off as kind of preachy to me.
It’s also worth noting that, at the time, I was an idiot.
But I’m better now! Or at least a little older and wiser and more self aware. I haven’t really read much LeGuin in the past, though I vaguely recall reading A Wizard of Earthsea a long, long time ago. And then, a couple of months ago, I happened across an old copy of The Left Hand of Darkness at an estate sale, so I snagged it based on my vague recollection of someone mentioning the book to me at some point. It’s been sitting on the bookshelf (one that I picked up at the same estate sale, it’s worth noting) until recently, when some friends started telling me how much I needed to read the book.
And y’know what? They were right.
The Left Hand of Darkness centers on a guy named Genly Ai, a diplomat sent to the planet Gethen. “Gethen” means “Winter” in the local tongue, so Gethen is about as pleasant as a name like that suggests.
Gethen’s cold and inhospitable environment is a huge, huge influence on the culture of its native people. LeGuin explores the various ways that Gethenian society adapts to the deadly environment (Hospitality is a big thing, as one could imagine) in a way that reminded me a lot of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Only, y’know, with snow instead of sand, and far fewer giant worms. What’s an even bigger influence on Gethenian society, however, is the way they treat gender. Or, more accurately, the complete lack of gender. This isn’t just in a ‘everyone’s bundled up against the cold so you can’t tell who they are’ sort of way; due to some weird quirk of biology, Gethenians are biologically asexual … except for a short period of time each month, called “kemmer.” When a Gethenian is “in kemmer,” they are compelled to seek out others who are also in that same stage, at which point they pair off and develop either male or female sexual characteristics for the sake of reproduction. Gethenians default to asexual, and those who take on the traits of one sex or the other on a permanent basis (like, say, visiting diplomats from planet Earth) are referred to as “perverts.”
Science Fiction, everybody!
It’s a heady concept, and one that really takes a bit of getting used to. LeGuin (or at least Ai) defaults to male pronouns when he refers to Gethenians, but at the same time, the book is littered with little excerpts and descriptions that place feminine traits to them. Of course, that’s not the only thing that takes a little bit of getting used to. LeGuin front-loads the first chapter with made up science fiction places and names and concepts: kemmer, kyorremy, dothe, srifgethor. Ai (and therefore, the reader) gets a rough understanding of how all this works eventually, but for a good chunk of the book, the reader is just as confused as Ai is, despite the fact he’s supposed to be a trained Envoy and diplomat making first contact with Gethen. It’s a neat little narrative trick that I can’t help admire.
Ai explores Gethen, occasionally guided by a Gethenian politican named Estraven. Estraven’s far cannier than Ai, pulling him out of trouble on more than one occasion– though at the same time, Estraven’s just as confused by offworld culture as Ai is about Gethenian society, so there ya go. LeGuin even features two wildly disparate countries, which is a nice little change from a lot of science fiction that just goes the “one planet, one government” route. And in another nice little touch, the lack of gender doesn’t make Gethen a utopia, either; the most two powerful countries on the planet are a parlimentary monarchy with a fickle king, or a horrible communist society complete with secret police and gulags.
The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness is a little bit meandering (though it picks up in the last third, where Estraven rescues Ai in a daring jailbreak), but that’s kind of the point. It’s a novel of exploration– both of the planet Gethen, and of the ideas that it’s based on. Every turn the plot takes (even the more adventurery bits) are there to highlight one particular facet of Gethen or another. Luckily, these ideas are interesting enough to make it well worth the read.
LeGuin casts a long, long shadow over the science fiction genre. For example, Ancillary Justice features a nation (well, space-empire) that is monogendered culturally but not biologically. Or even Commitment Hour which centers on a village in which the inhabitants choose their biological and cultural gender after getting to try out both as they grow up. Even still, both of those novels, as well as a bunch more I haven’t read, follow directly in LeGuin’s footsteps, whether the authors knew it or not. (Then again, I’m betting they did).
To be honest, I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t read The Left Hand of Darkness before. It’s an absolute classic, one that’s ripe for discussion. While LeGuin wrote the book back in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness is still relevant today, given the manufactured controversies and hand-wringing conservatives are kicking up over who gets to poop where.
Then again, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated The Left Hand of Darkness nearly as much if I had to read it for a class back in college. Like I said, I was kind of an idiot back then.