Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.
The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, was Ursula K. Le Guin's third published novel, and arguably her best ever. It won the Nebula Award for best novel in 1969, and the Hugo Award in the same category the next year.
The book takes place on the planet Gethen, a world deep in an ice age. It follows the efforts of Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, an association of human worlds. His mission is to offer the Gethenians membership...if he can get them to believe he is from offworld.
Gethen, or Winter, as the Ekumen sometimes refers to it, is clearly written as a political parallel to Earth in the mid to late Twentieth Century. There are two major nations, the Kingdom of Karhide and the Commensality of Orgoreyn, engaged in intense rivalry. The technology is also very Earthlike, with cars and radios, factories and streetlights.
But the people of Gethen have one significant difference from most humans: they are not men and women. Most of the time, they are neuter, but once a month they go into kemmer and become either male or female. No physiological habit is established; the mother of children may be the father of several more.
The story opens as Ai's attempts to convince the King of Karhide to join the Ekumen are beginning to go wrong. His chief ally, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, abandons his cause. Estraven is shortly banished to Orgoreyn, sentenced to death if he ever returns. Ai finds himself increasingly isolated. His audience with the King is a failure.
After travelling through Karhide, he tries his luck in Orgoreyn. Unlike the King, the Orgota politicians believe he is who he says he is, and fear him because of it. He is soon in grave danger, and barely escapes with his life. To get away, he and Estraven journey across a vast glacier back to Karhide and eventual reckoning.
The book uses a multi-layered narrative style.1 Some chapters are in Ai's voice, some in Estraven's. Some contain Gethenian folktales or ethnographic notes by Ekumen investigators. Some peripheral points are never spelled out. For instance, Estraven's relationship with his brother, a powerful bit of characterisation, is only hinted at in two of the fairy tales.
Surprisingly (especially for Le Guin's work), this book is not primarily about gender. She touches on it, for instance by equating the Gethenians' sexual nature with their failure to discover war. And Ai is certainly staggered by the Gethenians' genderlessness, but the reader is not.
Some of the impact of a gender-neutral world is lost because Le Guin uses the masculine pronoun for Gethenians. They are always referred to as "he" and "him"2, because (as she explains in the introduction) she has no patience with made-up pronouns. Although this detracts from the strangeness of the society, it improves the book's readability substantially.
The story is partly a meditiation on the nature of loneliness and isolation. Ai struggles throughout the book to see the Gethenians as fellow humans, to trust them, and to love them. It's a good book to read when you're in culture shock.
It's also about politics and nationalism. It was published at the height of the Cold War, and Le Guin uses it to question the rivalry inherent in the patriotism of the time.
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.
I think her questions still stand.
Lastly, and most deeply, it is a book about friendship, and Ai's and Estraven's relationship deepens throughout the book. Through it, and through Ai's eyes, the reader is led to love Estraven, and to care about his eventual fate.
- Unlike in her later book, Always Coming Home, Le Guin doesn't sacrifice the plot to the idea of multi-voiced narrative here. Every chapter advances the reader's understanding of the story.
- To address the imbalance that writing about Gethenians in the masculine created, Le Guin published a short story using feminine pronouns. The story, Winter's King, is included in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, and gives a nice balance to The Left Hand of Darkness.