First published: 1969
‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ tells the story of Genly Ai, a human emissary to Gethen (or Winter, as he often calls it) whose mission is to bridge the culture gap between Gethenians and humans, and bring them into galactic civilization. Given that Gethenians, as a race, have no gender (or, if you like, have both) this makes the culture gap more of a Grand Canyon…
From what I’ve read and heard about this book, it’s generally considered to be essential to the classic science fiction canon. One of the Big Ones, if you will. After reading it, it’s not hard to see why. It is by no means an easy read, nor is it (now bear with me) particularly fun, but it is definitely worth reading if you’re looking to broaden your sci-fi horizons. Since this is pretty much the reason I picked it up to begin with, this works out for me.
Not fun?! I hear you cry. Well … no. There is no fast-paced rollicking adventure to be found here, but what the story DOES offer is an incredible in-depth exploration of the world of Winter (very aptly named) and the people who inhabit it, from their culture and customs to their prejudices. As a visitor from a world that most of the Gethenians he meets don’t even believe exists, who has only one (very obvious) gender, it is Genly Ai who’s the odd one, the mystery, the freak. As it follows his journey across Winter in the company of the often unfathomable Estraven, a native who takes it upon himself to help Genly in his mission, the real gems that make this book ‘valuable’ are uncovered.
Gethenians are androgynous, and largely sexless until they enter the period of their ‘cycle’ in which they are compelled to mate. Only when they enter kemmer, as it’s known, do they become distinguishable by gender, though it can still be either male or female. On more than one occasion, Gethenians are noted as being comparable with animals, and the difficulty that Genly has with relating to any of them is obvious from the start. Though this book was published in the late ’60s, no doubt in a time when there was much more taboo surrounding sexuality, and the exploring of it, than there is today, the ideas presented here are, to me, still compelling ones to consider. How DO you relate to someone who simply cannot be identified with as either male or female? It’s a thought-provoking angle indeed, and LeGuin handles it beautifully here.
In addition to all of that food for thought, the world of Winter itself is, at times, the star of the show. When Genly’s efforts at intergalactic integration see him tricked and imprisoned, it’s down to Estraven to break him out and bring him back into contact with his own people. This leads the duo into a trek across the land of Winter that nearly kills them both, and takes them through some astoundingly well-visualised Winter terrain. Their journey through the ‘inside’ of a blizzard in the far northern lands was, for me, the standout chapter of this book. So masterfully written, I practically had literal chills.
Equally as compelling is the development of the friendship between Genly and Estraven on this journey. From having little to no real understanding of one another, despite the missions that compel them both onto their path, they soon become true friends. Of course the fact that they must rely on each other to survive their journey forms a large part of the basis for this bonding, but the most intriguing scenes written here are the quiet conversations between the two – and we get the story from both perspectives, as LeGuin changes character point of view back and forth between them. It’s an approach that doesn’t always work well for storytelling, perhaps, but here it helps to enrich all of the exploration. As well as seeing Genly’s outsider perspective, we get to see Genly through the eyes of one of the people to whom he is the strange one, and it’s here that LeGuin really scores the character/storytelling points.
So, all in all, perhaps this is not a ‘fun’ book, as I said. Maybe it’s not for everyone – but for anyone who wants a story that really gives them things to think about, this is a must-read. It took me far longer to finish this book than usual, but if that’s the only trivial nitpick I have with any story, then I consider myself a happy and rewarded reader. Go forth and explore.