The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Quin
Ace Books, ISBN: 978-0441478125
Paperback, 304 pages. ©1987

On Gethen, human envoy Genly Ai has been sent to convince the planet’s leaders to join the Ekumen, a loose confederation of planets who do not rule one another, but who cooperate in matters of interest to all Ekumen members. Barriers to Ai’s success include Gethenian pride, antipathy and discord between that world’s rival nation-states, and Ai’s lack of understanding in a global culture fueled by the ambisexual nature of Gethenians. The only native who believes the Ekumen can save Gethen is Estraven, a native whom Ai regards with suspicion. But when politics casts Estraven in a criminal light, Ai is dragged into a fierce powerplay and finds himself imprisoned, beaten, and left for dead. Only by abandoning his prejudice—and learning to trust the Otherness of his savior—can he survive his ordeal.

The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969 and is the title that established Le Guin as a science fiction writer. It’s incredibly intricate, an excellent example of worldbuilding. Politics and governance are well-represented, if convoluted, which makes it all the more believable. The climate on Gethen is wintry; inhabitants and their lifestyles reflect this in every detail. But what captivated me most was the nature of Gethenian sexuality. On Gethen, gender is irrelevant. Though Ai uses predominantly masculine pronouns throughout the narrative, native humanoids on Gethen are not born male or female. They are neither—until they enter “kemmer,” a regular period of increased hormonal activity in which Gethenians are driven to find a partner who is also in kemmer, for sex and procreation. Hormone levels determine which partner becomes the inseminator and which becomes the recipient. If the recipient becomes pregnant, they remain “female” throughout the gestation period, after which they return to normal. This cycle drives the entire culture, coloring every aspect of Gethenian society.

Though this isn’t the only detail to recommend the book, it’s definitely key to the story. At the time it was written, Gethenian sexuality drew a lot of attention among readers and reviewers; but it’s still relevant today. While some have criticized Le Guin for homophobia, and while Le Guin later expressed regret that she’d portrayed Gethenian norms as heterosexual, the fact remains that the story explores the nature of gender in our own society, as well as on Gethen. For my own part, I found the development of friendship and love between characters so widely diverse much more meaningful than when or how or even whether copulation occurred.

In any event, The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic in science fiction literature, a multi-layered story that explores not only cultural divides but sociological ones as well as deep, philosophical quandaries, a must-read for all sci-fi fans. Groundbreaking and evocative, I found myself rooting for both Ai and Estraven, and was sorry to turn the last page. Only one of multiple novels set in the Hainish series, LHoD can be read as a standalone tale. One caveat: Le Guin runs heavy on detail and subtlety. It isn’t exactly an easy read. If that bothers you, dear reader, push through. I promise the payoff is worth it.