The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Like the human aliens of the planet Gethen, The Left Hand of Darkness is first one thing and then another, encompassing all of them yet remaining bounded by its humanity.

The inhabited worlds of Le Guin’s interrelated Hainish novels are tied together by membership in the Ekumen, eighty-odd planets in something like a trading federation, linked by communication that is faster-than-light communications but travel that is relativistic. When an inhabited world is newly discovered, the Ekumen sends scouts who work discreetly; when they want to make formal contact, they send a single person to act as an envoy.

Genly Ai, a Terran man who is described as dark-skinned but whose ethnic background is not otherwise specified, is the Envoy to the planet Winter, known to its inhabitants as Gethen. The planet is in the depths of an ice age; the human nations there all struggle against the cold, have adapted to it in various ways, and have some customs in common that cross barriers of culture because all cope with harsh conditions. The story opens just before a ceremonial event in the capital of Karhide, a city known as Erhenrang. (The name is very close to German for “rank of honor,” though Le Guin does not, to my knowledge, otherwise play much with alien names that have meanings in Earth languages.) The first chapter is cast as part of Genly’s report back to the Ekumen.

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.

Le Guin the daughter of anthropologists is very much in evidence in this book, not only in its opening and its structure—which contains reports, folk tales, field notes from the scouts who preceded Genly, excerpts from a holy book, and chapters from other points of view—but in its concerns: how people adapt to their environments, how societies change, how customs are passed down, how religious practices arise and persist. There is also a great deal about power: who has it in the two societies that she shows the most, how they exercise it, how people with less power experience that exercise. Understated, but also underlying all of the politics, is how people and the systems they are part of react to the sudden appearance of an indisputable alien, from a civilization that spans the stars.

Genly spends most of his time, initially, in Karhide, and Le Guin not only gives readers a monarchy that is very much not watered-down England, she convincingly sketches a polity that, as one character describes it, “is not so much a nation as a family quarrel.” Later, she shows their religion, complete with a heretical offshoot and mystics who seem to be able to demonstrate the truth of their mysteries.

This all sounds programmatic, and in service of a lesser story, or in less deft hands, it probably would be. But Genly Ai has arrived to change the world; indeed, his arrival in and of itself will change Gethen. In the first chapter, he is preparing for a long-awaited audience with the king of Karhide, hoping that royal acceptance will lead to a smooth path for his mission as an Envoy of the Ekumen. His closest ally at court, Estraven, tries to warn him off, but classic cultural misunderstandings prevent the message from coming through, and Genly’s situation becomes very precarious very quickly. As does Estraven’s, though readers do not realize that until later.

They separately make their ways to Orgoreyn, the other Gethenian society detailed in the book, as Le Guin drolly alludes in her chapter titles, “One Way into Orgoreyn” and “Another way into Orgoreyn.” Where Karhide is a collection of squabbling clannish groups, Orgoreyn is much like state socialism, circa 1963. It works, after a fashion, but it is drab and dreary, at least in Genly’s eyes. Estraven, for all that he is a noble across the border in Karhide, sees it differently when he falls in with workers in a fish-processing factory. The rivalry between Karhide and Orgoreyn echoes the Cold War, but Le Guin saves the portrait of the communist stand-in from becoming a propaganda exercise by capturing the ramshackle absurdity of the system and the delight that people took in thumbing their noses at it. The menace of midnight arrest is there, too.

The book reaches its climax in an epic journey that Estraven and Genly undertake across an ice sheet, on foot, for hundreds of miles, without adequate maps, and with winter coming on. It’s riveting. The details pile up, and the entire enterprise teeters on the edge of possibility, but also of disaster, in a book that very well might kill one or both major characters before its end. And as they cross the ice, they come to know each other, and to gain self-knowledge.

“…You hate Orgoreyn, don’t you?” [said Genly].
“Very few Orgota know how to cook. Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession. … Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
Ignorant, in the Handdara sense: to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing. (p. 228)

They come to know, even as they are known.

Except for the Cold War overtones, The Left Hand of Darkness could be on this year’s Hugo ballot, instead of having won the award 45 years ago. It feels very much a contemporary work; I can only imagine the effect it had on the field at time, though I can see some of the effect it has had on literature in the years since.

A large part of that effect stems from how the book addresses gender; more precisely, from Le Guin’s portrayal of the Gethenians as humans who only belong to a particular gender for a short period of fertility each month, when they can be either gender, and who are androgynous outside of that period. Genly is lost at sea when he encounters people who have been both mothers and fathers, and whose gender markers and roles are, from his perspective, mostly missing. The Gethenians, for their part, regard Genly as a somewhat pitiable freak for being stuck permanently in one gender. There is much more in the novel, all revealed in service of the story, but also consistent with the world that Le Guin has constructed.

Science fiction is still very much in dialogue with The Left Hand of Darkness. The opening sections of The Goblin Emperor have echoes of Genly Ai at the court of Karhide, while Ann Leckie has acknowledged the inspiration it provided for both the icy trek in Ancillary Justice and her approach to gender in all three of the Ancillary books. I’m sure it will repay re-reading as well; as I was starting to write these reactions, it occurred to me that Karhide’s ruler’s reaction to Genly’s arrival paralleled the first two stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief: denial (that Genly could be what he claimed) and anger (that such disruption would occur during his reign). Next time through, I will look to see if the other three are there; I will look to see if each of the personal breakthroughs between Genly and Estraven during their journey is echoed by improved chances of survival; and I will look to see what other depths I missed on my first time through. They are there as surely as the ice on Gethen itself.

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  1. Damn you, Doug Merrill, now I have to read this book, as if my TBR list wasn’t already gargantuan enough. The Lathe of Heaven, btw, seriously freaked me out.

  2. The only other Le Guin I have read is Earthsea. I’ll probably be changing that.

    I have a vague recollection of PBS showing an adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven, but not really anything more.

    Maybe I should call it my Strategic Book Reserve instead of TBR? Given that as a “pile,” it’s currently three or four years high at my usual pace of reading. But I’m glad I let Left Hand of Darkness cut in line; I thought it was really good.

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