I read this remarkable landmark sci-fi novel all over again immediately after I finished it, which is exceedingly rare for me. I simply wasn’t satisfied with my first reading, which happened in short bursts separated by long periods of time; this is a kind of richly detailed and imaginative book that’s best appreciated by immersing yourself into it for a while.
Science fiction is a perfect medium for exploring “what if” scenarios, and the thought experiment in The Left Hand of Darkness goes like this: what would a human society look like if people had no fixed gender, and male/female dualism didn’t exist?
Well it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a blissful utopia, because, in the absence of gender differences, human beings would simply be divided by other differences. But it’s still a fascinating speculation. In Le Guin’s novel, Gethen is a fictional planet populated by humanoids who are gender-neutral for most of the time, except for once a month when they enter a sexually active period called kemmer and adopt either male or female characteristics. Their attributes are not fixed from month to month, and no one has any say over which sex they adopt; a person who bears a child one time might father a child the next. Le Guin uses he as a gender-neutral pronoun for all Gethenians; on one hand it undercuts the notion of a gender-free society, but it’s also a rather accurate reflection of the way “male” is often regarded as “default” in our own society, as much as I dislike the notion.
As a reader, we predominantly explore the world of Gethen through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from a loose coalition of planets called the Ekumen. The Ekumen is portrayed as enlightened and benevolent and overall a very optimistic future for the human race. Genly’s mission is to break the news of life on other planets, and to convince Gethenians of the value of joining the Ekumen. Which basically comes down to convincing the local government. His first stop is Karhide, a despotic monarchy where Genly spends two years before finally securing an audience with the King. Later on he travels to a neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, a land of stifling bureaucracy with a sinister secret police.
Though he comes as a representative of an advanced people, Genly struggles to understand this genderless society with its shifting sexuality, and some of his asides suggest that he can’t help but regard the Gethenians with distaste as some sort of effeminate men. Getting over his prejudice is a major part of Genly’s story, portrayed through his evolving relationship with Estraven, a powerful politician who takes up his cause. Some chapters in the book, written from Estraven’s point of view, help to illustrate the difficulty of communicating across the cultural barriers, with both characters misreading each other and seeing meaning where none was intended.
Other than kemmer, the aspect that shapes the life on Gethen most is its punishingly cold climate (to the otherworlders, the planet is also known as Winter). This harsh and unforgiving environment leads to a risk-averse and war-averse society, where technological progress is slow and steady, as is the travel. The second half of the book especially has some of the best descriptions of chilly conditions you’re ever likely to read.
The novel has a solid plot, full of political intrigue and betrayal, but the plot itself is arguably one of the least interesting things about it. Other than the utterly fascinating exploration of gender (or rather the absence of it), The Left Hand of Darkness captures the everyday texture of life on Gethen in a wonderfully vivid way, making it feel like a lived-in place with myriad of little details and evocative imagery. There’s a lengthy travel section that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would have been an absolute chore to read through, but Le Guin makes into an engrossing and emotional account. There are also short chapters sprinkled throughout the book that tell Gethenian legends and folk tales, creation myths, and observations by the earlier Ekumen explorers (one memorably expresses horror at the notion that one’s femininity or masculinity would go unappreciated in a society like Gethen). They all add to the richness of this imaginary world.
First published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness has remained a sci-fi classic for a reason. I also look forward to reading more from Ursula K. Le Guin.