The Left Hand of Darkness * Ursula Le Guin

From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490–97.

Of Ursula Le Guin’s Trio of Masterpieces—The Earthsea series (1968–2001), The Dispossessed (1974) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—it is the latter which guards its secrets most jealously and which, perhaps, asks the most of its reader.

Not that it’s a difficult novel by any stretch, but The Left Hand of Darkness stays faithful to its varied form: a report submitted by an anthropologist from Earth and “first contact” envoy, Genly Ai, to his superiors; interspersed with myths and legends from the planet Gethen (known to its extra-planetary visitors as Winter); observations by one of Genly’s predecessors who studied the planet and its people undercover; and journal extracts written by Estraven, a Gethenian statesman.

“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession… Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”

lefthandUrsula Le Guin is (“is” because her best work will long outlast her death) a thought experimenter. This is a common denominator of many science-fiction writers, but Le Guin is more ambitious in her choice of experiments than most of her peers, and more assiduous in tracking the consequences of those choices.

In The Dispossessed the experiment is “What if a society evolved where nobody owned anything?” In The Left Hand of Darkness it is, “What if gender was not fixed but serially mutable?” For most of their twenty-six-day month and cycle, Gethenians are androgynous and celibate, but for two or three days of kemmer they become sexually active as either male or female, with no say in which.

“The king was pregnant.”

Genly—like most of the book’s readers—possesses a single one unchanging gender, making him, from a Gethenian perspective, a biological anomaly to be pitied—or, less kindly, mistrusted as a “pervert.”

Ursula manages to ask the important questions here:

Does violence have a gender? Rape does not exist on Gethen, and seduction “would have to be awfully well timed,” but what of marriage, sexism, misogyny, and feminism?

“A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots, and this was audacious territory for a little-known genre writer to explore. In many countries of our still-benighted world, this is dangerous territory. It’s not difficult to see why, for many activists in the LGBTQ circles, The Left Hand of Darkness has accrued the status of an early seminal text.

“It is a terrible thing, this kindess that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give. ”

17126_1Most articles about Le Guin mention her father, a respected anthropologist, at the University of California, Berkeley—for the valid reason that Le Guin created her worlds with an anthropologist’s eye not only for language, but for rituals, myths, and influence of geography on culture. Gethen feels too replete with persuasive details to be made up. Cliche withers away. Le Guin does not resort to evil masterminds or dystopian states needing to be overthrown by a plucky band of misfits. A mentally unstable king and a quasi-totalitarian state threaten Genly Ai’s safety, but the true antagonists of The Left Hand of Darkness are very human bigotry, politicking and the harshness of theMost articles about Le Guin mention her father, a respected anthropologist, at the University of California, Berkeley—for the valid reason that Le Guin created her worlds with an anthropologist’s eye not only for language, but for rituals, myths, and influence of geography on culture. Gethen feels too replete with persuasive details to be made up. Cliche withers away. Le Guin does not resort to evil masterminds or dystopian states needing to be overthrown by a plucky band of misfits. A mentally unstable king and a quasi-totalitarian state threaten Genly Ai’s safety, but the true antagonists of The Left Hand of Darkness are very human bigotry, politicking and the harshness of the Gethenian climate.

Genly Ai is an unarmed man in his late twenties from a distant planet, a self-exile out of his political and cultural depth, at the mercy of events he rarely, or barely, grasps. He is your ordinary Joe, a far cry from any Star Trek captain or a Jedi Master.

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made.

“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?” “That we shall die.” “Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

This book is a must read and while it gets a bit hard and tedious at points, the story picks up and makes any sci-fi fan a bit happier.

 

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