The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle, book 4) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ace Books, 1987, 304 pages, 978144021478125, Mass Market Paperback, $8.99
My feelings about The Left Hand of Darkness are somewhat complex. On the one hand, I’m still putting together the meaning of the story, which is varied and has a number of components, while also realizing that not only was this book not a completely linear narrative, but I also liked that about it. Somehow I feel as if I’ve evolved as a reader–I actually enjoyed the abstracted, theme-based bits that would ordinarily irritate the everloving bejeezus out of me.
The premise of The Left Hand of Darkness appears straightforward initially: an envoy from a coalition of planets called the Ekumen has come to the planet Gethen (called Winter by the main character) to ask the people to join the league of worlds. These worlds are all inhabited by various offshoots of the Human race that, over time, have evolved to have different physical, psychological and cultural norms. This envoy, Genly Ai, has approached the rulers of Karhide to be the first country to enter into an agreement with the Ekumen. After a series of political muck ups–since politicians will always be politicians, no matter where you are in the universe–Genly Ai leaves Karhide to seek potential agreements elsewhere, only to be thrust into circumstances which he must somehow survive if he has any hope of completing his mission or, for that matter, getting off the planet alive.
At first I didn’t fully understand where this story was going, and were this a more recent novel, it might lose marks for that. But being one of the “classics” of science fiction, I already knew to expect a more intellectual, less linear narrative. In short, this book is part political story, part survival story and part intellectual/thematic/conceptual brilliance. Whether or not you like the book will ultimately depend on whether you find the events of the novel too loosely woven for your tastes or whether you focus on the themes of the story and apply them to the charater development of the narrators.
In one sense, even though the events of the book take Genly Ai from one location to another and, on the whole, there’s no “action” in this book, as we would currently describe it, there is an overarching thread that ties everything together, and that’s Genly Ai’s determination to do his job—to convince Gethen to join the Ekumen. Our second narrator, Estraven, is essentially determined to do the same thing—to help Genly Ai in his mission because he believes in him.
But the book is more layered than that, of course. There are the political maneuverings of the people of Karhide and Orgoreyn, all of which threaten Genly’s safety at one time or another. There’s also Genly’s gradual understanding of how his culture is different from the culture of Gethen. How he has next to no understanding of how things work at the beginning of the book–how he finds the native people wholly alien–yet by the end, it is his own people that he finds alien.
This, of course, comes after a long acquaintance with Estraven that grows into a friendship, which in my opinion is simaltaneously one of my favorite elements of the story and one that I still feel could have used even more exploration. The narrative is written from the point of view of both characters–one in a journal and the other telling the tale. Both of these POVs describe situations that, over time, drew the two characters closer together. From Genly Ai’s persepctive, however, I always felt distanced from events and characters–I was never quite comfortable in his POV. Perhaps that’s because he represents–especially at the beginning–everything that I find disagreeable with our Human culture’s perceptions and expectations. Perhaps it’s because he did take so long to warm up to Estraven–something that was intentional but still frustrating for me, personally, as a reader. Or it could just be because he was intended to be distant and out-of-place as the alien in this society.
The other fascinating element of this story is, of course, the very important aspect of Gethenian sexuality–namely that they’re androgynous for the majority of their lives and only have defining sexual characteristics during the short periods of their “kemmer” cycle each month. This fact of their physiology has a huge impact on their society and is one of the things that troubles and confuses Genly Ai when dealing with the people initially. The book very directly addresses the concepts of duality and wholeness, and makes reference to them time and again, and not just with the issue of Gethenian androgyny, though it is the most obvious of the comparisons.
I very much enjoyed the Gethenian stories and legends included in the book. It added a lot to the narrative and to my understanding of the novel. Le Guin is very good about introducing a new story at the beginning of a chapter where the concepts within that story would be relevant. This was fascinating and one of my favorite aspects of the novel.
My main complaint, believe it or not, was that the book felt too short. The ending seemed a little abrupt, and I was incredibly annoyed by what ultimately happens to Estraven. Even though there is obvious development of the characters, I just wanted to go a little deeper. I always felt like my grasp on the characters was a bit slippery, and I never did quite catch hold of them. Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part—I couldn’t say—but that’s my two cents. Additionally, there were other characters I would have liked to have explored, including King Argaven, Minister Tibe, and the Foreteller Faxe. Not to mention the “mother” of Estraven’s children, who gets two quick appearances and then is never heard from again. And don’t get me started on the suddenly introduced and otherwise glossed-over issue of Estraven’s brother. That would have been an interesting plot point, for sure, if it had been explored.
But, on the whole, if you look at this novel from a more conceptual standpoint, I suppose those elements of the story didn’t requrie exploration. It all depends on what you want to get out of it.
Do I think this novel is worth reading? Absolutely. I would recommend it to anyone for at least a one-time read. As I mentioned before, even the more abstracted themes were accessible to someone who doesn’t usually have a lot of interest in such things. So if you’re like me in that regard, you won’t need to worry about missing out on the details.
Overall, a good story, and one that has me interested in reading more of Le Guin’s work. Should I try the Earthsea series next?
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