The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
Rating: 4.25 / 5, and *Unputdownable*
I’ve read (and adored) a number of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels over the past several years. But with the exception of Changing Planes, I hadn’t read any of Le Guin’s science fiction. It was about time that changed. So, I started with a novel that’s considered not only one of Le Guin’s most acclaimed stories, but an all-time genre classic: The Left Hand of Darkness, one man’s struggle to build an alliance with the people of the planet Gethen (a.k.a. Winter) while grappling with the cultural and physiological differences between his kind and theirs.
The Left Hand of Darkness follows two characters: diplomat Genly Ai, the said Earthling who comes to Gethen to broker a social and trade alliance; and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the only Gethenian politician who supports Genly’s mission – yet the only one Genly doesn’t trust. When Estraven is exiled from his home country of Karhide, Genly quickly finds himself embroiled in a battle of wits and politics that threatens his goal as well as his life. He recognizes some of the danger, but not all of it. His path later crosses with Estraven’s again, and more than once. The question is: Will Genly learn to accept Estraven’s help as well as the androgynous nature of the people he’s been tasked to negotiate with?
The Left Hand of Darkness is as much a story as it is a sort of fictional anthropological study. Genly’s internal struggle for most of the novel is his fear, awe, and repulsion of the Gethenians’ ability to change gender during their sexual cycle, known as “kemmer.” He also describes the Gethenians’ physical appearance, governments, beliefs systems, and other cultural aspects. Basically, when Genly learns something about the natives, so does the reader. In addition, the novel’s structure consists of chapters alternating between Genly’s viewpoint, Estraven’s perspective via diary entries, and brief myths that shed light on Gethenian history and religion. There’s also an appendix in the back of the book (in the edition I own) that outlines the Gethenian calendar and time-keeping. This allows readers to immerse themselves in the world of Winter almost as fully as Genly may have.
While Genly’s evolution is compelling and essential to the story’s plot, I connected much more strongly with Estraven. He’s empathetic, logical, sagacious, and loyal to Genly and his purpose for being on Gethen. That last trait of Estraven’s is so obvious that, at a couple points during the novel’s first half, I wanted to grab Genly by the shoulders and yell, “Wake up! You’re trusting the wrong men!” Estraven is also resourceful and meticulous, which comes in handy when he plans his and Genly’s perilous trek across the Gobrin Glacier late in the story. Finally, Estraven carries an air of mystery and shame because of his past. Even before I fit all the puzzle pieces together before the end, I got the impression that Estraven sees his opportunity to help Genly as a way to redeem himself personally for his transgressions earlier in life, and I admire him for it.
Unfortunately, there were times when The Left Hand Of Darkness left me disengaged. The stretched-out periods of exposition went on too long at times, so my attention skipped over certain paragraphs to find where the actual story picked up again. I had to keep reminding myself that writing / publishing standards were different back when the novel was published in 1969. Also, an appendix of Genethian words in addition to the calendar would have been extremely helpful. I forgot what “shifgrethor” and other terms meant after a while, and was disappointed that the book didn’t contain something like this for the reader’s reference.
That, however, didn’t change how The Left Hand of Darkness touched me as a human being. It makes the reader think about how behavioral and cultural differences are trivial details in the end. I’ll even repeat what I’ve said to friends recently when I described this book: “You know a science fiction story works when you the reader can sympathize with one of the alien characters.” This and other discoveries haunted and resonated with me well after the book ended. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction, I implore you to reconsider and let The Left Hand of Darkness be your introduction. Because sometimes, we need an alien perspective to learn what makes us human.
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