Fiction – paperback; Gollancz; 304 pages; 2018.
First published in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic science fiction novel (and often heralded as a seminal feminist and LGBTQ text).
As regular readers of this blog will know, this is not a genre I usually read (with the exception of John Wyndham, whom I love), but it was chosen by my book group and I was intrigued enough to give it a go.
I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the ideas in it (Le Guin herself describes it as a “novel of ideas” in the introduction to this newly published edition), but I was less sure about the execution.
What’s the book about?
Before I elaborate further, let me give a brief synopsis.
Genly Ai, a human envoy, is sent to the Planet Gethen, 17 light years away, to invite them to join a political alliance of 80 other planets. He befriends statesman Estravan, who can grant him an audience with the king, but through a cultural misunderstanding this does not happen as promised. Instead, Estravan is exiled from his community, forbidden to contact anyone on pain of death. Genly must now go about his business by himself — an alien in a completely foreign society — trying to establish contact with the political elite to further his aims.
It is this stranger in a strange land concept that makes The Left Hand of Darkness so intriguing, because all the people on Gethen, a planet besieged by an almost eternal winter, are androgynous and celibate, apart from the two or three days in every monthly sexual cycle — which is known as “kemmer” — when they become either male or female and are able to reproduce. No one has control over which gender they transform into, which gives arise to the novel’s most famous line:
The king was pregnant.
What I liked, and didn’t like
This is what I mean about a “novel of ideas”, because Le Guin has posed a really intriguing question — what would happen if we lived in a genderless society without eternal sexual tension? — and explored it in an equally intriguing way. She also plays with the concepts of patriotism and loyalty, friendships and love, but what didn’t really work for me was the structure of the novel.
Instead of focussing on a straightforward narrative, the story for roughly two-thirds of its content is a mixture of first person accounts from both Genly and Estravan interspersed with myths, legends and anthropologist reports which showcase Gethen’s sociopolitical culture and its history. It’s not until about chapter 14 (page 185 in my edition), when both protagonists embark on a daring 800 mile journey across a treacherous ice-ridden landscape, that the book takes on a compelling, page-turning quality. That’s a lot of pages to trudge through before you experience any urgency to the tale.
That said, I guess this isn’t a book that you read for a fast-paced plot. It’s a book that asks questions about the way our own society is set up, how human biological impulses have shaped our culture and the ways in which almost every facet of our lives is dominated by sex, perhaps without us even realising it.
Personally, I also liked the way it challenges our concepts of belonging and cultural identity, because it feels particularly pertinent here in the UK with all the shenanigans related to Brexit and the rise of populism across the Western World.
As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that, when I had asked him if he hated Ororeyn [a city on Gethen]; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?
All in all, this is a fascinating novel, one that feels quite relevant to the times we live in when gender fluidity is such a hot topic and there’s so much discussion about equality between the sexes. And as much as I am glad I took the time to read it, I haven’t been converted into a science fiction fan and I doubt whether I’ll ever read anything by Le Guin in the future. This hasn’t surprised me; and if you are familiar with my reading tastes I doubt it will surprise you either.