21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 7: The Left Hand of Darkness

Books & Mags

My latest reading project rolls on with The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin (first published in 1969).

21 Authors Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai is sent to planet Gethen (also known as Winter due to its extremely cold climate) as an envoy for the Ekumen of Known Worlds, an interstellar conglomeration for trade and cultural exchange. His mission is to convince the planet to join the Ekumen, easier said than done on a world where the conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of the year and where cultures and technologies change at a glacial pace. (Pardon the pun!)

I knew a little of Left Hand before reading it. I knew that it’s highly regarded, that the inhabitants of the world are androgynous (or something) and that there’s an arduous trek across a glacier (or snowy steppes or somesuch) that’s somehow significant.

I also knew that some people describe the book as being about gender. Gethenians are all of the same sex – or, rather, of no sex until their monthly reproductive cycle known as kemmer comes around. At that point, depending on who else is in kemmer nearby, a person may turn either into a Gethenian male or female, and it’s quite usual for someone to be both a mother and a father.

I’m not entirely sure yet what Left Hand is about for me. The Gethenian biology does get a lot of attention, but I suspect it’s because it’s so unfathomable to Ai. The importance of hospitality and cooperation in the cold climate is also significant, as are the balancing of opposite forces (like you-me or individual-society), the complex Gethenian honor system shifgrethor and their aversion to war. Karhide’s neighboring country Orgoreyn sounds like a communist regime, with its people described as units instead of citizens and its communal resources or endless bureaucracy; Orgoreyn may, in an unprecedented step, be moving towards starting a war with Karhide, and we might have a Cold War echo there.

Structurally, Left Hand avoids infodump by alternating the present-day narrative chapters with short chapters on Gethenian mythology. I was a little bothered by how much longer the primary narrative chapters were, for it made reading the novel choppy; I may well change my mind about that if I read Left Hand again.

I’ve seen LeGuin’s writing described as zen-like. The descriptor fits her style in Left Hand well, especially when she’s describing traveling across the icy landscape. A fascinating read, and one I may well like to get back to after mulling it over. Considering that I very much enjoy and have read LeGuin’s Earthsea stories several times in two languages, I can’t believe I haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness before!

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

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