The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin, Ace Books, 2000, 336 pages, (1st edition 1969)
Reviewed by Craig Storti
I’m sure most readers will agree that so far we have been very well behaved in this column; we have chosen respectable, presentable titles well within the mainstream of our field. You may even think that at this point you more or less know what to expect from us.
Good. Because this month we are planning to rock the boat, take a walk on the wild side, and otherwise stir the pot. We have decided to review a work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. We hasten to add this is not just any science fiction book—we have our standards, after all—nor is Ursula Le Guin your run-of-the-mill science fiction writer. She is, in fact, the daughter of a renowned anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, and that fact is not coincidental to the nature of this book: It is science fiction, to be sure, but science fiction sifted through an anthropological sensitivity. If an interculturalist went a bit crazy, abandoned all pretense, and wrote a novel, it might read like this.
Some of you may stop reading at this point because you know Le Guin and you think she writes fantasy—she’s best known for the Earthsea Trilogy, which is fantasy, albeit intelligent fantasy—but she also wrote science fiction, winning numerous Hugo awards (for best science fiction novel of the year) along the way, the most of any woman writer. Le Guin herself did not like the label science fiction writer and preferred to be called a novelist.
“Be that as it may,” the reader is thinking, “what’s she doing in this column?” To be sure, a lot of science fiction is about interplanetary wars, alien creatures, and end-of-the-world scenarios. But the more thoughtful—and no one is more thoughtful than Le Guin—deal with the most basic concept in the intercultural field: contact and interaction with the Other. All science fiction deals with that concept one way or another, but it is usually just in passing, incidental to the story, while here it is the central focus; The Left Hand of Darkness is all about what it’s like trying to understand and function effectively in another culture.
Naturally it has to have a plot; it’s a novel, after all, a story, and there has to be some excitement or even interculturalists won’t keep reading. But page for page The Left Hand has more insight into and examples of intercultural interactions than any novel your reviewer has ever read (with a couple of exceptions that might just make an appearance in this column, too, one day). So while you should certainly read it for the story, you will be intrigued by the deep cross-cultural undercurrents, especially in the first half of the novel.
So what is the story? Genly Ai is an emissary to the world of Gethen from the Ekumen, a union of 84 planets which cooperate for cultural, scientific, and trade purposes. Genly’s brief is to sell Gethen on joining the union, for mutual benefit. There are several separate nations on Gethen, and at the moment two of the biggest ones are fighting over a disputed territory, and Genly gets caught up in the politics as each nation maneuvers to use his proposal as a foil against the other.
The curious thing about Gethen is that its people, while otherwise human, are bi- or ambi-gender; each person has both male and female sexual organs, one set of which will become active when a Gethenian enters kemmer (something like estrus) and mates with someone who, for this particular period of kemmer, is of the opposite sex. The same individual, in short, can be the mother of some children and the father of others. Many of the book’s cross-cultural moments revolve around how Genly comes to terms with Gethenian identity—or fails to.
“When you meet a Gethenian,” Genly remarks at one point,
you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interactions is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
That’s a rather blatant intercultural observation, but the book is full of subtler, throw-away moments and incidents, growing organically out of the story (which makes it easy to miss many of them), of misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and cultural faux pas. Indeed, the plot turns on a misreading by Genly of his friend Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide. Which makes this a good place to note that the characters in this novel are extremely well drawn; they are not merely the implementers of the plot, as in much of science fiction, but central to it.
The only real job of a science fiction writer (maybe any novelist) is to create what’s known in the trade as a “world,” a place with its own geography, believable inhabitants, a history, and most of all a culture. Gethen comes alive in a way real places don’t in some fiction. In the last half of the novel, when Genly and Estraven are fleeing across the northernmost reaches of Gethen, the landscape becomes almost a character. Their flight is drama of the highest order.
The only problem with The Left Hand of Darkness is that after you put it down, you’ll want to read another book just like it. But there aren’t any. (So don’t say you haven’t been warned.)