The Left Hand of Darkness
By: Ursula K. LeGuin
Type: Science Fiction
Setting: Gethen, an ice world
Genly Ai, envoy of an eighty world organizational council known as the Ekumen, visits Gethen to offer the people there membership in his organization. Mired in a complex system of two-faced politics, he travels between two of Gethen’s major civilizations trying to garner support for his offer. All of the inhabitants of this world are human, though a significantly different strain from Ai’s; they are all ambisexual, changing (or rather gaining) sex randomly in a monthly cycle of procreation.
It is easy to see why this novel won the Hugo and Nebula awards when it came out. LeGuin writes in a grand style, focusing on the philosophy, social mores and fascinating sexuality of the Gethenians. At times, the dialog seems almost Shakespearean in nature, fitting the social structure of the people. Often they engage in a face-saving tit-for-tat word game known as shifgrethor, in which the goal seems to be keeping one’s own prestige while reducing the other’s without directly attacking their position. Shakespeare would have loved it, and it fuels the politics of all the major civilizations on Gethen.
LeGuin handles the ambisexuality issue admirably, especially in terms of how these people, who spontaneously “grow” one or the other set of genitalia at certain times of the month, react to Ai. To them, he seems to be permanently in the sexual state known as kemmer and this makes for some fascinating dilemmas, especially during an eighty-day trip across a giant glacier with one of the inhabitants of the world. LeGuin extrapolates the effects that ambisexuality would have on a world of people, as well. On Gethen, there is no war, rape, gender-based succession or any other kind of dominance/submission duality, but this is not to say that violence or seduction do not or can not exist. The Gethenians simply have not needed to conceive of the idea of killing more than a few of each other at a time, and then only in very extreme circumstances. Rape is a non-issue because people in kemmer go to kemmerhouses and mate with others there, and sexual urges do not manifest at all when they are not in that part of their cycle. When seduction or violence exist, they do so only as means to achieve political goals. Competition does exist on Gethen, but only in the political arena, and only against people who are considered to be equals.
Honor, integrity and mysticism play a big part in the book, as well. Ai’s main contact and ally on Gethen, a Prime Minister named Estraven, believes so strongly that what Ai proposes is right that he sacrifices his position and freedom to argue for it. He is banished from the Domains he once served, and throughout his exile his mystic faith sustains him. At one point, Ai compares Estraven to the yin/yang symbol, saying that it is a portrait of his balance and all-encompassing nature. Symbols of unity run throughout the novel, and are even alluded to in the title: (Light is) the left hand of darkness. LeGuin makes the point well that much of what we see as two opposites can more realistically be seen as two aspects of the same entity — two ends of the same stick. This is a central idea in eastern and some western mysticism, most notably Zen Buddhism and the ancient Hermetic tradition.
This book is excellent, and well deserving of the awards and reputation it has received. It is entertaining but also plants the seeds to make us think about the meaning of true unity, something we rarely understand in our dualistic society.