Over the years I realized that I do not read science fiction for the science. While the nuts and bolts of the actual science can be interesting, it is not compelling to me. No, what I look for are places and worlds to explore, cultures to understand, interesting plots, and dynamic characters. That is why I loved Dune and Lord of Light and disliked the Wanderer. All those things are in Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, the 1970 Hugo Winner, and I loved nearly every word of it.
It is worth noting before we get started that Ursula LeGuin is the first woman to win the Hugo Award and only the second one nominated in the 17 years the Hugos that had existed at that point. There won’t be a dissection of that fact; I just felt it was worth noting. This blog is to discuss the quality of books and authors are judged solely on their works; nothing else.
LeGuin has nothing to fear on that account, though, because as I wrote earlier, I loved this novel. It had all the elements that I love in a good novel. Before we get into each of those elements, I should explain the backstory for the work. The Left Hand of Darkness is part of LeGuin’s Hanish Cycle, a series of loosely connected books about The Ekumen, an organization of planets and civilizations. Since space travel is so difficult interplanetary warfare is impossible so the main purpose of the organization is facilitate communication and trade. The Ekumen has an unusual yet sensible way of bringing other planets into the fold: it sends one person, called the Envoy, to a planet to convince them to join. Why just one person? Because two people are an invasion. The Ekumen reason that one person is less of a threat and shows the nonviolent nature of the organization.
The protanganist, Genly Ai, of The Left Hand of Darkness is one such Envoy and he has been sent to the icy world of Gethen. Gethen is interesting for two reasons: it is in icy age and the people have not set gender. The Gethens have no gender except during kemmer where they turn male or female depending on whom they are with. So a person can be both a father and a mother. LeGuin does an excellent job describing a society where the normal male/female relations do not exist. One of the the interesting ramifications of this is most Gethens believe Genly is a pervert because he is stuck as male. Gethens do not fight wars (I found this a bit hard to believe but more on that later) but they are hardly a peaceful or nonviolent people. Instead of war, Gethens are engaged in constant and complex political infighting that can end with assassinations and murder as often as not. For Genly Ai this complicated political situation is made even more difficult by a Gethen practice called shifgrethor. Shifgrethor is a nuanced face saving mechanism that all Gethens use and understand and Genly is mostly clueless. As someone who has lived in worked in the Middle East I am familiar with something like this and it can be frustrating.
While Genly Ai is a great character and it is fasnating to read about his struggles, the novel is also told through perspective of Estraven, a Karhide noble that arranges Genly’s first audience with the king. To go into more detail would spoil the book but Estraven is a great character and it is interesting to see events from his perspective.
The societies of the two nations Genly Ai visits feel fleshed out and unique. Karhide is a late feudal era monarchy and Orgoreyn is an industrializing nation with a communist social structure. LeGuin lavishly describes the countryside and the architecture of both places making them feel quite real. I really loved the depth she gives to each society. Too often in science fiction alien societies are too one-dimensional to be really interested. Star Trek is particularly guilt of this.
The book could be better though. My first critique is more of a backhanded compliment. I wish the novel was longer. It is barely over 300 pages but easily could be another 100 or 200 pages. Gethen is such a rich world that it seems a shame that we can’t read more about it. As far as I know, LeGuin has never returned to Gethen. The Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t need a sequel, I just wish it was a bit longer.
I mentioned earlier how the Gethens don’t go to war. LeGuin has stated that, since they have no set gender, Gethens don’t have a concept of the Other. There is no “us and them” in their minds. While I find that assertion somewhat dubious (it is her book so she can say what she wants) the Gethens do have a degree of nationalism and do seem to have lower regard for other nations. This is clearly an “us and them” way of thinking. People don’t need much a reason to separate themselves from others. The fact that Orgoreyn and Karhide speak different languages would be enough. I get what LeGuin was trying for but it didn’t really work.
Don’t let my small complaints get in the way of enjoying The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a quality read and puts the 1970s Hugo Winners off to a good start.