The Left Hand of Darkness
By Ursula K. LeGuin
Walker and Company, New York, 1969
I remembered the broad arc of the story and some of the major characters and plot points. But I read as if for the first time the rich culture, complex politics and brutal physical world LeGuin created for this book.
The Left Hand of Darkness is told mostly through the voice of Genly Ai, the human envoy of an alliance of humanoid worlds called the Ekumen. Ai is sent to the planet Gethen to invite the people of this mostly frozen world to join the Ekumen if they so desire. But Gethen has its own internal political and cultural conflicts to resolve, and Ai gets caught up in the subtle yet deadly intrigue and jockeying for power within and between the competing nations of this planet.
So far, so conventional.
But Gethenians are strikingly different from the people of other humanoid worlds: they have no fixed gender. They are ambisexual. Most of the time they are androgynous. About every 26 days they enter a period called kemmer during which they become fully male or female and may mate with another Gethenian in kemmer.
From this one “simple” premise, LeGuin creates a fantastically detailed culture and society. Its implications are profound and far-reaching.
Like all good science fiction, this story is as much about us as it is about the future or some alternate world. We see ourselves reflected through a twisted mirror, from different angles and perspectives. We get to imagine ourselves living different lives in a different kind of world. Things we take for granted, like gender, are rendered strange and mutable when placed in a context where they are absent or radically altered.
We also encounter characters who exhibit a range of responses to their world, mirroring the behaviors of people in our own. In this case it’s responses towards change – first contact with aliens – from those more open and receptive to new people and new ways to those who are more closed-off and reluctant to engage.
The Left Hand of Darkness really is one of the finest examples of what makes science fiction, or better yet speculative fiction, so rewarding. Take some aspect of human society or technology, change it or extrapolate it to an extreme, and then tell a compelling story.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic award-winning novel is worth re-reading many times over.
Update (Jan. 16, 2021): The United States Post Office has announced it will issue a stamp this year honoring Ursula K. LeGuin with a design featuring a scene from The Left Hand of Darkness. The exact release date has not yet been decided.
OpEd: The Category-Defying Genius of Ursula K. LeGuin:
Acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards