The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is the first book I read this year, so it seems odd to be writing about it now some two months later. This kind of out of joint action seems to be a symptom inherent throughout my work and home life at the moment, but hopefully something that will resolve itself over time. I’m not worried, and you shouldn’t be either. if I hadn’t told you, you never would’ve know, eh?
I put The Left Hand of Darkness on my Christmas list last year because it won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Le Guin is very much highly thought of both in fantasy and science fiction circles, and after running out of Philip K Dick books I needed to get me some classic sci-fi (albeit published in 1969). Somewhere along the way this was touted as her best book, so I thought what better place to start.
A theme running through The Left Hand of Darkness is the effect of gender and sex on culture and society. The influence of Le Guin’s anthropologist father is apparently evident in many of her books and very much so in this one, which on publication caused much debate among feminist circles due to the ambiguous sexual characteristics of the characters on the planet Gethen who are neither men or women.
This theme of gender fluidity is explored through the relationship between Genly Ai, an envoy of the Ekumen sent to Gethen, and Estraven a disgraced Gethenian politician who trusts and helps him (leading him to be exiled from his country). Genly Ai’s mission is to persuade one of the countries of Gethen to join the Ekumen. Be warned there are a couple of spoilers below, so don’t read on if you intend to read this book.
The Ekumen is a relatively powerful but well-meaning confederation of planets which sounds like an embryonic version of Iain M Banks’ Culture. I think it’s fair to say that this book, if he read it and I expect he probably did, very likely influenced Banks’ science fiction writing as much as Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets (which I guess are metaphors for the USA or the Roman or British Empires if you extrapolate far enough).
The Left Hand of Darkness explores the political machinations, relationships and back-stabbing between the gender fluid characters within the governments and influencers within Gethen’s two major nations Karhide and Orgoreyn. Genly Ai is rather clumsy in his attempts to complete his mission leading him to have to flee Karhide to Orgoreyn where he ends up being held prisoner until he is rescued by Estraven. As envoys go, he’s pretty terrible. There then follows an arduous journey through frozen wastelands back to Karhide.
During their journey, Genly Ai teaches Estraven how to speak telepathically but they still find it difficult to fully understand one another. When they eventually reach Karhide after an eighty-day trek through blizzard conditions, Genly Ai calls down his orbiting spaceship, which contains his Ekumen buddies in stasis and lands a few days later. Estraven, still exiled from Karhide, attempts to get back across the border by a much shorter route and is killed by border guards.The governments of both Karhide and Orgoreyn collapse and soon both countries agree to join the Ekumen.
It’s a very interesting book important not only for its explorations into gender but also theology. The novel contains mention of two Gethenian religions – the old Handdara religion dominant in Karhide, and Yomesh in Orgoreyn. Handdara is kind of similar to Taoism, and Yomesh is based on the idea of absolute knowledge of the whole of time attained in a vision by a legendary seer.
While all Gethenians have similar phases of gender fluidity, they are divided along religious lines. Estraven is an adept of the Handdara and strongly believes in the balance between light and darkness (hence the yin and yang symbol on the cover of my copy of the book). Indeed the title The Left Hand of Darkness is revealed to refer to an old Gethenian saying – Light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness the right hand of light… It’s an idea very much embedded in the psyche of any Star Wars fan whose canon is awash with quasi-religious references to bringing balance to the Force.
I won’t say it’s a super-exciting read (I recall feeling quite bored on a few occasions) but overall it felt like essential reading for any science fiction fan and it was certainly a whole lot better than a certain other sci-fi book published around the same time by a certain male sci-fi writer with an entirely different take on ‘swapping’ sexuality.