Reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in Freshman English during college was a formative experience. Only, I wasn’t prepared yet as an eighteen year old to fully appreciate how so until years later. It perplexed, enchanted, and haunted me at the time and continued to for the next two decades. I’d read an awful lot of science fiction at that point but nothing quite as sophisticated and thought-provoking as Le Guin’s 1970 masterpiece. This was my gateway into the more cerebral corner of science fiction. It mostly vexed me, and at times I was unable to decipher its code. Class discussions with our professor and the eventual paper I wrote on it helped clarify things a bit, but I still felt like the book was too smart, too mature, for me to comprehend.
It was the early 1990s and we were reading the 1982 mass market paperback edition from Ace, with the words “Winner of the HUGO and NEBULA Awards” inside of a star burst exploding out of the upper left corner of the cover. That cover was striking and evocative, with its eerie Gethen winter tableau: a female and male face carved in ice together, one head bleeding into the other, an apt aesthetic representation of two of the novel’s primary themes of sex and gender. Sadly I lost that paperback edition years ago. Sad because as a fan of book design it was a favorite of mine, but also because had it remained in my collection I’d likely have reread it sooner.
This October The New Yorker ran Julie Phillips’s wonderfully informative and intellectually rich profile of and interview with Le Guin. Reading it I was struck by several things, including the passion and fire with which Le Guin has approached not only her work but also her life. This was a writer whose work I could relate to, with her recurring themes of politics, gender, religion, and identity. I’d read some of her short fiction since college, but nothing more. I resolved to rectify that, but first I would start where I had begun all those years ago, with The Left Hand of Darkness. I purchased a new copy and began my reread the week of the U.S. presidential election. The timing couldn’t have been better, with Le Guin’s words acting as a balm for my troubled mind in the days immediately following the election. At a time when our nation seemed more fractured than ever along lines of color, gender, economics, and culture, reading this tale of an outsider confronted with an unfamiliar and alien culture was certainly timely.
In the book’s introduction. Le Guin explains that all science fiction is metaphor. Rather than predictive, as many readers assume, it is descriptive. With The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin provides one of the finest examples of how the best science fiction explores both universal and contemporary themes through imaginative metaphor in order to make sense of our own time. She explains:
“If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.”
The book helped introduce me to this notion that science fiction was about ideas, not simply space fantasy. As a freshman student I struggled at times to grasp the nuance within these pages. This year while rereading the book, I found it much easier returning to Le Guin’s alien world of Gethen, to live among its androgynous inhabitants in their cold, glacier-covered land. The experience this time remained haunting and kept me off balance, yet now it all felt so much more comforting and enriching.
Much of the story is told from the perspective of a male envoy from Terra, Genly Ai, on his mission to the planet Gethen. There, he hopes to talk Gethen into joining the confederation of planets called the Ekumen. Exiled former Prime Minister Estraven narrates a good portion of the book as well. We hear the story of Ai’s mission from both their perspectives, allowing for a deeper exploration of how this stranger in a strange land, Ai, both perceives his surroundings and is perceived by Gethenians like Estraven. Ai is intrigued and stymied by the Gethenians’ complex and advanced sexuality. While androgynous during the majority of every month, during kemmer—a once-monthly period of sexual receptiveness and fertility—they can take on either male or female sex traits, with either partner being able to conceive and carry a child dependent on whomever adopts the female trait. As the stand-in for our concept of a “normal” gendered human, Ai is looked upon by the Gethenians suspiciously, even as sexually deviant. Le Guin, in a long section in the book’s last act, explores how Ai and Estraven are tentatively feeling one another out, trying to better understand how their disparate cultures work. There is an attraction there, and they fumble and stumble through a series of conversations that reveal how wide the chasm is between their two cultures.
During this recent reading of the novel I was much more in tune with how Ai and Estraven, during their intricate and thoughtful conversations, are often talking around subjects, similar to how people in our society often find themselves talking to one another in code. Part of this is due to Ai’s inability to grasp Gethen’s intricate societal norms and part is Estraven’s need to adhere to these rigid behavioral standards. As they journey across the cold and barren land in Gethen’s permanently harsh winter conditions, they slowly learn more about each other and their respective cultures, touching on identity, religion, politics, and more. Their discussions centering around dualism—man/woman, light/dark, good/bad—are central to what Le Guin is writing about here. This dualism is readily apparent in the book’s title, which recalls a line from a religious poem that Estraven reads to Ai during their journey across Gethen: “light is the left hand of darkness.”
As a teenager I reacted to the Gethenians very much like Genly Ai does, with equal parts wonder and confusion. Reading it today, with two decades worth of experience and understanding of how our differences can lead to suspicion and fear, I now see things from both sides of the book’s perspectives. Ai is still an audience surrogate, being a Terran (Earthling) and of a fixed gender (male), but Estraven and his Gethenians seem much more human to me now. Ultimately I think that’s one of the points Le Guin is making here: at the heart of it all, different cultures can still find common ground and work towards not only a mutual appreciation but even love.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic of the science fiction genre because of how Le Guin thoughtfully explores ideas and themes that have been and will remain central to our own existence: identity, sex, gender, and the politics of all three. Science fiction at its best is thought-provoking, and with this novel Le Guin created a uniquely provocative work within the literary cannon. It was certainly distinctive to that teenage version of me in Freshman English twenty-odd years ago. It’s the sort of novel you need to live with for a while, to let Le Guin’s words and the images they conjure wash over you until you feel almost at home in this alien world. Le Guin’s exploration of the dual nature of Gethenian conceptions of gender, identity, politics, and religion, creates a rich and timeless metaphor for our own society.