Le Guin is an author who grows as you grow. You can read and admire her at thirteen, and you can read and admire her at forty-three. As I have done. Because I think it must be around thirty years since I last read The Left Hand of Darkness. I’d never really felt the need to reread it because I knew the story. It’s one of those novels whose plot and characters have entered science fiction common knowledge – we all know about it even if we’ve not read it.
Which is a shame. Because it’s definitely worth reading, and certainly stands up to rereading.
The book is set in Le Guin’s Ekumen, a loose mystical/economic interstellar polity of eighty-odd human planets with the world of Hain at its centre. Earth was seeded by the Hainish. The Left Hand of Darkness is set on Gethen, also known as Winter, which has just been invited to join.
The Gethenians have no space travel and, strangely – and uniquely among the humans of the Ekumen – they are hermaphrodites. For three weeks of every month they are effectively neuter, but for a week they are in heat, or “kemmer”. And the gender they take during kemmer depends entirely on those around them.
The Left Hand of Darkness is essentially a character study of a Gethenian called Estraven. He is the royal contact of Genly Ai, the Ekumen’s lone Envoy to the world. And it is through Ai’s, er, eyes that we come to know Estraven and, by extension, the people of Gethen. The novel is essentially world-building, and it’s a fascinating society Le Guin has created – a result of both the Gethenians’ sexuality and the planet’s harsh near-Arctic climate.
The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness is considerably less complex than the world itself. Estraven falls from favour and is banished from Karhide. The king’s new adviser is not interested in joining the Ekumen, only in provoking a war with the neighbouring police state of Orgoreyn. Ai visits Orgoreyn, hoping to have more luck with its “commensals”. He meets the exiled Estraven, who warns him that no one is interested in the Ekumen, only in using the Envoy to improve their own political fortunes. When those machinations fail, Ai is arrested and shipped off to a “Voluntary Farm”, where he is continually drugged and interrogated. There is an ongoing discussion amongst the Gethenians regarding Ai’s true nature – is he what he claims to be, or just the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax? This is purely Gethenian speculation; for the reader, Ai’s nature is never in doubt.
Estraven rescues Ai from the farm, and the two trek across the northern ice shield to return to Karhide. Since the commensals had claimed Ai had died of a virulent fever, his miraculous return should be enough to provoke the king of Karhide into inviting the Ekumen ambassadors to Gethen.
The story is told by Ai, who begins the novel with the line:
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
Ai’s narrative is interspersed with excerpts from the journal of Estraven. And between the two they cover the entire period between Estraven’s exile from Karhide and the landing of the ship containing the Ekumen ambassadors. The focus remains firmly on the two narrators.
Since the Gethenians are neuter for 75% of the time, and can be either gender when in kemmer, their society is essentially single-gendered. So The Left Hand of Darkness is as much a book about gender-roles as it is an exploration of an alien Other. And, while it was first published in 1969, perhaps in order to better contrast Gethenian society with the reader’s, Le Guin seems every now and again to drop into gender stereotypes – especially for women, since Ai is male and Estraven is neither. But that’s a minor quibble.
The Left Hand of Darkness is Gethen. And Gethen is one of the best-realised worlds in science fiction. I’d last read this book years ago, but had since then reread The Dispossessed… and decided the latter was the better of the two. But having now read The Left Hand of Darkness once again, I find I’m not sure. There’s no doubt they’re the best two of Le Guin’s Hainish novels – which makes them amongst the best the genre has produced – but I suspect I’ll never decide which is best and which is second-best.
Unlike the other books I’ve reread for this year’s challenge, The Left Hand of Darkness did not disappoint. In fact, it did the opposite – I like it even more than I thought I did. I will definitely be reading it again one day. I might even add it to the bottom of my favourite novels list…