The Left Hand of Darkness
263 pages @350 wds/pg
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.
"The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."
"We stowed the wheels, uncapped the sledge-runners, put on our skis, and took off—down, north, onward into that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent. The sledge pulled like a feather and we laughed with joy.
"It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have."
"Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?"
The Left Hand of Darkness
Sexuality is not the only taboo
The Left Hand of Darkness is about a lot of things. But, unlike many science fiction writers, Le Guin doesn't lay it all out for you in comic-book-style exposition. Like a serious mainstream author, she tells you some things, hints at more, and leaves still more for you to discover on your own.
This is because she is not "creating a new world" as SF writers are often said to do, specifying each aspect of it from futuristic technological devices to the social system. The background structure—the Hainish federation of planets with its emissaries visiting prospective members—is already in place from previous stories in the series (of which Left Hand is the jewel) and is not really very important here. It just provides a way for a human like ourselves to be brought into contact with people who have turned out differently on a different world.
Le Guin does not "create" a world as much as she explores the consequences of subtle differences in worlds and what they tell us about ourselves.
The difference with the people, the Getheren, on the visited world in Left Hand is that they are each male and female for only a few days of each hormonal cycle. Between these bouts of being "in kemmer" (or in heat, as we might think of it), they are neither one sex nor the other.
More interestingly, the sex they turn into while in kemmer depends on the current sex of their partner. One turns female, for example, when one's partner turns male. And therefore anyone can bear children.
This of course colours the race's entire outlook, their social structure, their technological development, their philosophical views, all without them being aware that matters could have turned out any differently. Just as our male-female bipolarity has affected our entire history and culture without us being particularly aware of it.
I don't mean to give the impression though that The Left Hand of Darkness is entirely a meditation on such matters. It would not have become so popular if it were.
All this heavy sexual-identity stuff is presented or hinted at in the course of an exciting plot concerning the emissary's attempts to convince the main nations on Getheren that he is genuinely from another planet and that joining the league of worlds would be beneficial. At various points he has to fight hostile leaders, seek allies and flee for his life.
He ends up in a surprising alliance with one particular character. Their final heroic journey together across the frozen wastes of the planet—an Earthling and a Getheren, a male and an androgynous being, sharing an intimate closeness in struggle against the elements and their own natures for over two months—is the magnificent showpiece of this novel. One forgets the sci-fi story and lives with the two through all their hopes and despairs just as one would in a great story of against-all-odds endeavour on our own planet.
Great writing—by turns thrilling, unsettling, provoking and uplifting.