A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change – their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.
Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet called Gethen, also called Winter by explorers from the Ekumen. It is an inhospitable world to the Envoy Genly Ai, a world of ice populated by an ambisexual people who, for the majority of their lives, have no gender. About once a month, they come into kemmer, and so become one gender or another in order to fulfill their reproductive capacity, though from one time to the next they do not know which gender they will become. Someone always gendered, as Genly Ai is, is considered a ‘Pervert’.
Genly is the First Envoy to this strange and unfamiliar planet, tasked with inviting its peoples into relationship with the Ekumen, the body that unifies the rest of the known universe. He must navigate the careful pride and manners, shifgrethor, and political machinations in order to fulfill his mission – though he himself acknowledges that he may not succeed in his lifetime.
Around the middle of this book, there’s a definite shift in tone – from political to survival. Genly grapples first with the people of two nations, never fully comprehending either, and then struggles directly against the uncaring hand of the Ice that covers much of this world. The first section is much slower, more indirect, in the way that the politics of Gethen is, and if I’m honest I found it quite hard to get through. I only understood the value of all that work when I reached the second section – which, I suppose, is how Genly Ai comprehends his own story. He never fully grasps the human forces of Winter, coming closest only when he is profoundly isolated from them in the presence of just one other person, both of them effectively aliens on the ice. It is the reckless, painstakingly calculated journey across the ice that will stay with me, I think, but without the rest of the book it would have meant nothing.
But this book is fascinated with duality, and the necessity of both. Darkness and light, ice and warmth, knowledge and ignorance, male and female – and neither. One cannot walk in the light without shadows, as Genly and his companion Estreven discover so starkly. This is a thought-provoking book, and I mean that literally – I am left thoughtful, about politics and patriotism, about gender, about this beautiful and terrible planet, and how it speaks to the world now, even though it was written five decades ago.
I didn’t get on with this book to begin with, but now that I’ve finished I genuinely feel enriched by it. Stick at it, if you don’t love it immediately. It pays off, I promise. And I definitely want to re-read it at some point, to see that first section with more informed eyes.