While squarely in the science fiction genre, Le Guin never lets it get in the way of beautiful writing, nor does she let overly ornate language get in the way of a story that is as strange as it is familiar. And yet, it was not a simple or easy read. Where so many novels in the genre rely on heavy action and fast pacing for a quick hit, Le Guin’s novel is, in many respects, a slow but steady burn.
The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on the planet Gethen, populated by descendants of human colonists so far in the past that the colonization has been forgotten. Gethen’s inhabitants’ most distinctive feature is a sequential hermaphroditism. In other words, no one is permanently male or female, but changes–biologically–during certain stages of the cycle and based on the role needed for reproduction. Le Guin uses this to examine gender in ways that are just as provocative as when Left Hand was released in 1968. Gently Ai is an emissary of the Ekamai, an intergalactic alliance of humanity’s planets, and he has come to Gethen to invite them to join the network of worlds. In the process, he first tries the Karhide, making friends with the king’s advisory, Estraven, and finally obtains an audience with the king, only to find Estraven accused of treachery and his mission a failure.
Hoping for a better opportunity elsewhere, Ai crosses frozen mountains (Gethen is nearly perpetually frozen, with only short periods of warmth, and even that it is only relative) to Orgoreyn. Unlike the chilly reception he had received in Karhide (no pun intended), the Orgoreyns wine and dine him, and Ai believes he will find the success that eluded him in Karhide. At this moment, he encounters the now exiled Estraven, who warns him of imminent betrayal. Ai spurns the warning, foolishly as he soon finds out. For the first time in generations–if not ever, the Orgoreyn and Karhide nations will go to war, and Ai is seen by the Orgoreyn as a potential spy, or worse. He is picked up by the secret police, and he is soon in a prison camp that Sozhenitsen might recognize without too much difficulty.
As hope turns to despair, Estraven appears again, and together they decide to cross a frozen glacier land in one last attempt to return to Karhide and convince them to join the Ekamai. Le Guin’s taste for interweaving topography, culture, language and the sheer danger presented by the elements is dynamically manifest, and it’s a scene I love as the stage that has been set for so long comes together.
Again, while the gender aspect plays an enormous role, Le Guin seems more apt to ask the questions about gender than to propose or impose answers, but never does it interfere with her story of aliens navigating each other’s culture to find a place where they can drag their respective people into a better future. Too often it seems like modern sci-fi–especially if inclined towards social justice–wants to drop a heavy-handed message in the middle of an unsuspecting plot, leaving a reader either distasteful turned off (and if you’re not turned off, one has to question if you’re enjoying the book only because of a bias-confirmation inclination that is satisfied by the message). Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is neither heavy-handed nor lacking in commentary primarily because it never condescends or preaches. Rather, her power is in a plot fraught with tension and alienness, in a place that is distinctly “not Earth” and, yet, entirely like Earth. Her answers are questions, and her questions are what have allowed The Left Hand to continue to resonate nearly fifty years later.
(Which The Left Hand of Darkness is part of the Hainish Cycle, one need not read others in the Cycle to enjoy it.)