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The Left Hand of Darkness

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula, this novel is part of a loosely connected series sometimes referred to as the Hainish Cycle, even though the author doesn't care for that term. There are some internal contradictions and inconsistencies between them, and each can be read as stand-alone stories. The main common thread is that humanity did not originally evolve on Earth, but rather on the planet Hain, which colonized many worlds but then lost contact with them during a dark-ages period in its history. Various sites list both a different number and order for the stories and novels. In sequence of their publication this is the fourth novel, but it's fifth by internal chronology, or even later depending on whose list you use and if you count short stories. See links below for further information. Le Guin's first three novels reference Hain, and I may get around to re-reading them some day, but I want to concentrate on her award winners first, so they'll have to wait in line.

Set on a planet named Gethen by its inhabitants, although the first investigators from Hain had dubbed it Winter due to its harsh climate. It is in the midst of a centuries long ice age, perhaps even for multiple millennia. The various languages spoken contain more than twenty words for various forms of snow, depending on factors such as temperature, humidity, wind, etc. In some instances the word Ice is capitalized, in others not. At first I thought it might refer to a glacier, but that word is also used at various times. Gethen society is somewhere between post-medieval and pre-Industrial Revolution. There is minimal technology, automobiles of a type, although they are primitive and slow, but there are no flying craft. One reason for that might be that Gethen has no flying birds, so the people never thought of how it might be to fly themselves. Chapters alternate between two different first person accounts, those of Genly Ai, the Hainish envoy to Gethen, and Harth rem ir Estraven, Prime Minister of Karhide, along with third person segments dealing with Gethen history or myths.

Hain is a peaceful world, without military fleets or a war machine of any type. They seek only communication and the exchange of ideas and technology with the other worlds. Their first expeditions are secretive, with several investigators covertly observing the society. Later, one envoy is sent to reveal himself and attempt contact with government officials, whom he hopes to convince to join the Ekumen, Hain's confederation of worlds. Genly Ai had been born on Earth, but trained for his task on Hain. At the beginning of the book he has been on the planet for about a year. He first approaches people in the nation of Karhide, later he journeys to the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. The countries are different in both the actions of the government, as well as the comportment of the general population. Karhide is a monarchy, although the Prime Minister is responsible for most governmental functions. Ai is confused and frustrated over the delay in being presented to King Argaven, thinking Prime Minister Estraven is not sympathetic to his cause. The problem lies in Ai's inability to understand the Karhidian process of shifgrethor.

It's possible I'm confused by it as well, but I gather it is similar to the Oriental concept of "saving face." Estraven is supportive of Ai's mission, but the failure in communication causes grief for them both. Estraven is banished from the country and denounced as a traitor, not for the reasons Ai suspects, but mainly because the King's cousin Tibe plots against him and is elevated to Prime Minister. Ai learns that even though Orgoreyn is nominally a "democracy," the people of Karhide are much more free and openly friendly, while Orgoreyn diplomats will say one thing while meaning something entirely different, and the populace is under much stricter control. Through a long sequence of events, both Ai and Estraven return to Karhide, and the King accepts Ai's offer of confedertion. But it is not the action that sets this book apart from many others. It is something much more philosophical, perhaps psychological, but definitely sociological.

It is speculated that during the original settlement of some of the worlds, Hain scientists may have conducted genetic experiments to make the people more suited to their new environments. Another possibility is that different environments may have caused evolutionary changes in DNA. This book does not give a definitive answer concerning the unique physiological nature of the people of Gethen. The planet has a twenty-six day lunar cycle. For twenty-four days of a cycle, which differs for each individual, they are sexually neutral, androgynous. During the other two days they enter the state of kemmer, receptive to sexual activity, and at the same time they have the ability to choose their gender depending on their desires and the needs of the partner they select. This means that any Gethen can at one time father a child, at another they can bear a child as mother.

If this was the result of genetic manipulation, what could have been the purpose? Ai guesses it might have been an attempt at pacification. He knows from Earth history that males had been the dominant gender, and that many considered this the reason for Earth's penchant for war and agression. Gethen has never known war, but that is not to say there is no agression, it's just on a much smaller scale. There are fights between individuals, even murder and political assassination, but no nationwide call to arms or massive attacks against other countries. Is this due to sexual neutrality, or could it be more influenced by the restrictions of the harsh climate and lack of natural resources? As I said before, there is no concrete answer, the reader is free to make their own assumptions, which is one of the best things about it. It makes you think not only about the characters in the story, why they act and react the way they do, it also forces you to examine your own life and that of the society you're a part of. Gethens have a much more passive demeanor, whether that is from their sexual nature or not. Certainly they would have no gender based prejudices. Can you say the same?

This book is the perfect argument against the Sad/Rabid Puppies contention that it's only been in the past few years that SF has been hijacked by social concerns over action and adventure. The best SF has always examined the many elements that make up our psyche, how we react to and shape our environment, and how we cope with all the obstacles to creating a just society. Along with the unique and different examination of sexuality, there are also succinct and profound ideas concerning religion and personal philosophy, as well as political science. There is a passage concerning Tibe's frequent radio speeches, seemingly intent on promoting fear and anger, which could easily be used to describe Donald Trump, or almost any of the Republicans, today. Throughout all of this, Le Guin masterfully creates a vivid picture of Gethen and its people. The landscape is both beautiful and bleak, invigorating and daunting. Be sure to put on the heat, 'cause you're gonna feel cold through most of the book. Eventually, Genly Ai begins to trust and respect Estraven, and they develop a faithful friendship even though neither can fully understand the other due to their contrasting natures. But isn't that the case with us all? It's the attempt at understanding and friendship that is the real challenge. Genly Ai knows that, and so does Le Guin.

Related Links:
The author's Official Website
ISFDb and Wikipedia on the Hainish series


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Ursula K. Le Guin


Tiptree (1996 Retrospective)
Gaylactic Spectrum (2003 Hall of Fame)

Ditmar nominee

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