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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinUK cover5 stars
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On the occasion of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death in early 2018, a popular quote that made the eulogy rounds came from this novel: “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”

The Left Hand of Darkness encompasses multiple journeys. It’s about humanity reaching out to create bonds across the vast gulfs of space. It’s about nations in conflict working their way back towards an uneasy peace. And it’s about two people from different worlds caught in both a literal and metaphorical journey away from mistrust and conflict towards understanding and acceptance. Arriving at the height of the late ’60s New Wave, it opened up possibilities for science fiction with an influence still being felt today. We might very well not have gotten such works as N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy without The Left Hand of Darkness, let alone the careers of C. J. Cherryh, Ann Leckie, Zadie Smith — an entire generation of writers. It’s one of science fiction’s most important novels, establishing Ursula Le Guin as a titan of the genre.

The story follows Genly Ai, an envoy who has spent two years on the icy planet of Gethen attempting to persuade its people to join the Ekumen, a kind of United Nations of inhabited worlds. In Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of stories, the human race evolved not on Earth, but on a world called Hain, which eventually colonized the galaxy before a period when all interstellar travel temporarily stopped.

As a result of genetic experimentation, many of these different strains of humanity have different traits. On Gethen, the people are “ambisexual,” remaining essentially genderless for most of a month, before entering a brief mating period called kemmer, during which individuals pair up and their bodies physically change to either male or female. It is possible for a single person to have given birth to children and to have fathered others.

This unique sexuality influences all of Gethenian society, regardless of nation, and it presents a number of problems for Genly, whose mission is constantly impeded by his inability to understand, let alone assimilate into, Gethenian culture. Genly is himself regarded, though not to his face, as a kind of sexual deviant for being stuck in a single gender identity for life. For his own part, Genly cannot wrap his head around the mannerisms of his androgynous hosts, nor can he make much sense (and to be fair, neither can we) of an elaborate practice of etiquette and social courtesy called shifgrethor.

As the story opens, Genly has at last been granted an audience with Argaven, king of the nation of Karhide, arranged by the Prime Minister, Estraven, one of the few locals who’s supportive of Genly. Argaven, who seems paranoid and a bit crazy, rejects Genly’s offer, and Genly soon learns that Estraven has been accused of treason and exiled from the country for taking up Genly’s cause. Genly leaves the capital city while Estraven makes their way, with difficulty, to the neighboring country of Orgoreyn, which is currently embroiled in a nasty regional border dispute with Karhide.

Estraven arranges for an invitation to be extended to Genly to enter the country. Once Genly arrives, he discovers a much more complex political situation. Whereas Karhide is more a straightforward autocracy, Orgoreyn is a web of factions, each scuttling for advantage, some of whom hope to use Genly to their advantage. To reveal more in any detail would involve spoilers, but suffice it to say that circumstances ultimately become dire, requiring Genly and Estraven to flee Orgoreyn together, on foot, across glacial ice in a journey that takes more than 80 days.

There have been enough essays to fill whole libraries detailing the themes Le Guin explores here. But the one most widely discussed is the way Le Guin speculates on what kind of societies might form where traditional notions of masculine and feminine do not exist. It’s hardly utopian, but it is shown to lack the kind of heirarchies we get when one gender assumes by evolutionary default a position of power over others. People on Gethen are generally decent to one another. When Estraven and Genly travel to remote towns, they are granted generous hospitality, and this is considered the norm when meeting strangers. On the other hand, politics can be volatile. While the Gethenians have never known war, signs are that this is changing. While Genly is attempting to unite everyone into joining the Ekumen, both Karhide and Orgoreyn are becoming more militantly nationalistic. When King Argaven enters kemmer and becomes pregnant, Tibe, the acting regent and Estraven’s political rival, enacts policies so authoritarian and xenophobic they’d make Nigel Farage’s eyes water.

Le Guin did take some heat from feminist critics for creating a society where only heterosexual sex happens. When Gethenians pair up in kemmer, they become male/female partners and that’s it. But I’d take issue with those criticisms. For most of their lives, Gethenians are entirely sexless, and if kemmer is a biological cycle entered into solely for reproduction, then sexual identity as a concept — whether gay, straight, bi or ace — doesn’t really exist for Gethenians. No one engages in recreational sex, so really, why would any race of beings think in terms of gay or straight at all when each person has equal odds of manifesting male or female reproductive organs during kemmer. Whatever your feelings on the concept, Le Guin was thinking about sexuality in revolutionary ways for SF at the time, and the fact that writers are still expanding on and dialoguing with her ideas nearly 50 years later is a tribute to her impact on the field.

Beyond these themes, though, for me personally, The Left Hand of Darkness is the best story about friendship and loyalty in all of science fiction. Yes, the concept of yin and yang, everything needing its opposite for a kind of universal balance, is a little trite, and has certainly been spoiled over the past few decades thanks to a flighty, superficial pop-culture fascination with woo-woo mysticism. But what is very much on point is the necessary acceptance of differences. Genly mistrusts Estraven right up until the moment, on their journey, that he’s able to overcome his prejudice about Estraven’s alien biology, and acknowledge his own failure to appreciate that no one on the entire planet has sacrificed so much for him. If anything has the capacity to defeat us, it’s the walls we build up around ourselves, to protect ourselves from things we should know better than to fear in the first place.

Combining lush writing, multilayered world building, and a bottomless well of compassion for the human condition, with all of our successes and failures taken together, The Left Hand of Darkness remains one of science fiction’s great legacy achievements. If SF ever hoped to teach us about embracing the strange and the new, to reach past the darkness towards the light, then we never had a better instructor than Ursula Le Guin.