Ursula K. LeGuin
Read 2012, reviewed 4/21/2013, revised 10/9/2013
I first read this book in my college Science Fiction class. I remember loving the concept, but being confused by the bouncing narrative. Upon my current reading, I realized that this book is brilliant. It’s an amazing commentary on the importance we place on gender and gender roles, and how quickly we judge based on any deviation from the norm.
Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, “Left Hand of Darkness” begins with the arrival of an emissary from Terra, Genly Ai, who has come to the planet Gethen, or Winter, to invite them into the Ekumen, a union of the known inhabited planets of this universe. The inhabitants of Gethen are incredibly strange to Ai in that they are androgynous. They have no gender until they enter a state called kemmer, the time for reproducing. When they enter kemmer, they may be male or female, and may therefore be a mother or a father of children. In the same way, Ai is considered a pervert, seen as being always in the kemmer state.
The main action of the novel takes place as Ai and a disgraced Gethen prime minister, Estraven, make an incredible trek across the hostile frozen landscape. During their journey, Ai comes to understand the planet, its politics, and the nature of its people.
I often find a coldness to many of LeGuin’s works. Here, this feeling is exemplified by the icy planet on which the story takes place. It is cold and harsh. So is the society. So is the circumstance of finding love.
Despite the chill of the story telling style, the characters are somehow fully realized. I empathized with Ai and Estraven, and was completely drawn in by their relationship.
LeGuin has an amazing gift for fully realizing an entire society, with history and mythology. She uses narrative, diary entries, folk tales, and songs to create rich insight into Gethen. My main problem when I first read this book in college was that I did not understand the change in voice between the chapters resulting from this variety of information. Upon this re-read thirty years later, I fully grasped the complexity of the book.
This is truly a 5 star book. I love many of LeGuin’s novels, but in this one, I feel the coldness of the planet and ache in the despair of the main characters. At a time when Hugo winning male SF writers were barely giving voice to female characters, LeGuin was contemplating gender and xenophobia in remarkable ways. Even after 40 years of mostly positive societal changes, it still holds up as a relevant and profound exploration of the nature of love, sexuality, and the Other.