Classic review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness is considered one of the most important works of modern science fiction.  Published in 1969, it opened up the world of sci-fi to the concepts of gender fluidity, and is widely considered one of the first feminist sci-fi works.  Since then, the book had been studied by academics and feminists alike and is often prescribed as required literature in schools.  Maybe that’s why I was never compelled to pick it up until now, nearly 50 years after its original publication.  Even from a modern perspective, I found this book superb.  It is descriptive to a poetic level, it’s got strong characters and excellent worldbuilding.  I was able to thoroughly enjoy it even though I failed to detect any of the feminist elements people talk about.

This is the story of Genly Ai, an emissary of The Ekumen to the planet Winter (Gethen, as named by locals).  In Le Guin’s universe, a number of planets were colonized by humans, before contact between them was lost.  As they reestablish contact, they join an economic alliance called Ekumen.  Gethen was out of touch for so long that its inhabitants don’t even conceive of the idea of other words.  Genly lands here to educate them about the Ekumen and convince the planet’s countries to join.

He arrives in the kingdom of Karhide, where he is initially supported by the Prime Minister Estraven.  Before Genly meets the king, however, Estraven withdraws his support and is exiled for treason the next day.  Genly’s audience with the king doesn’t go all too well, with the king proving to be crazy paranoid, but he receives permission, indeed encouragement, to travel the kingdom.  He visits a few places, in particular an oracle that tells him that the kingdom would join the Ekumen within five years.  Upon his return to the capital, Genly is warned that the kingdom is no longer safe for him, and so he decides to try his luck in the neighboring country of Orgoreyn.

This is a Stalinist country, where Estraven escaped to and started building support for Genly.  When he arrives, Genly is welcomed warmly, and is encouraged to explain the Ekumen and the outside worlds to the smallest detail.  However, before he secures the agreement he needs to summon his space ship, he is arrested by the secret police and whisked away into a labor camp where he is expected to die.

Estraven travels to the camp and breaks Genly free.  Together, they set on an arduous three months long journey across permanent ice, during winter, on a planet still in its ice age.  Somehow they manage to survive, but Estraven is soon killed when he tries to reenter Karhide.  Genly secures the agreement from the king, and the book concludes with the space ship touching down, presumably securing Gethen’s place within the Ekumen.

The main strength of this book lies in the worldbuilding.  Multiple cultures clash here, and the resulting confusion and misunderstanding drives the entire story.  Genly is the easiest to understand.  He comes from Earth, and feels a strong calling to help other planets to join the community.  For him this is almost a religious task, and he is willing to be martyred rather than withdraw.  His ethics (and possibly work procedures) call for him to be entirely honest.  He is unambiguous in his answers and patient with all questions.  He doesn’t expect any less from others.

That’s also the main problem he is facing.  Gethen’s population descended from a genetic experiment that made all its inhabitants sexually ambiguous.  For most of the month they are sexually dormant, only to develop a set of genitalia and sexual drive for a few days.  The gender is fluid, and those who were previously males may turn female and vice versa.  For instance, the king, who fathered multiple children, became pregnant during Genly’s time on the planet.  As a result or this gender fluidity, Genly sees all people as effeminate and ambiguous in all they are doing.  He can’t force himself to trust them, especially Estraven, who seems to have changed sides numerous times, and who never explained his actions to Genly’s satisfaction.

The inhabitants also have a very nuanced sense of honor, which permeates the entire society.  It combines the desire to not offend and not being offended.  I got the feeling that one of the biggest offenses anyone could commit was being seen as patronizing to others.  Estraven, a career politician, is a master in this, but when he tries to apply this principle with Genly, he is baffled that the latter does not understand his meaning.  Misunderstanding on both sides is finally cleared during the trek across the ice, but by then it had caused many unnecessary complications.

Finally, there are regional cultural differences.  The kingdom of Karhide is an absolutist monarchy, but with a mix of clan structures (family estates called Harths) and a bustling mercantile class.  While the kingdom has politicians, they can be dismissed at whim by the king.  This seemingly allows for unchecked capitalism, but the aggression is toned down, as killing and wars are very rare (presumably because the harsh wintry conditions sap all aggression from people).  Orgoreyn, on the other hand, is a Stalinist country.  It’s rife with unnecessary bureaucracy and secret police, and while presumably everyone is equal (to the point where they are assigned lodging, food and work by the state), there is a ruling class akin to the Soviet Politburo.  Moving between the two societies caused great confusion for Genly, who didn’t see the signs pointing to his eventual imprisonment in Orgoreyn.

In addition to the incredibly detailed cultural landscape, Le Guin did a superb job with the physical landscape.  I learned a lot about the planet and especially its climate very quickly.  During the ice trek, which took a large part of the book, I further read about the different kids of snow and ice quality, and found that the locals had names for everything winter-related.  How they adapted physically, and how they coped with the environment with their modes of transportation and family units.  While the cultural part was a very clear influence for the Culture series by Iain M. Banks, the physical description served as a template for the somewhat clumsy Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

There’s absolutely no fault I can find with the work of art that is The Left Hand of Darkness.  The cultural, societal and physical aspects of the worldbuilding are deeply intertwined, and seem to contain an unending array of layers and nuances.  The entire setting is entirely believable.  The writing style transcends the years.  It is just as refined as the setting, to the point I didn’t think was possible with English.  Different languages, like music, have different timbre.  They are either loud and straight-forward, or they can contain layers of meaning and descriptions that color what is actually being said.  I find English falling primarily into the former category, but Le Guin managed to mold the language to the other extreme.

The Left Hand of Darkness received its Hugo award in 1970, and it’s one of the most deserving books on the award roll.  Even nearly fifty years later the story is still modern, gripping and superbly written.  Everyone should read this title and pass it on to their children.

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