Sometimes the impulse to fully represent how much a book means to you is almost enough to render you speechless. I feel this way about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that packs such potency that it still catches me unaware sometimes. Most admirers highlight the novel’s cerebral heft–it is, for my money, one of the most sophisticated thought experiments that touch on everything from extraterrestrial urban planning to theology, anthropology, and high-level geopolitics. But those kinds of reviews fail describe how well Le Guin wields wistful delicacy when she wants to, how unerringly she locates the beating human heart of this forbidding story.
The novel is told through a series of reports by an envoy named Genly Ai. He is nominally a human being (he refers to himself as Terran), but he comes from an advanced society called Ekumen that fosters intergalactic alliances and commerce among various alien entities. Genly arrives in Gethen, an ice-bound planet that can be considered a sort of backwater, in an attempt to persuade its inhabitants to join the alliance of planets.
The narrative opens two years into Genly’s expedition, and his diplomatic efforts are going nowhere. The leader of a kingdom in Gethen called Karhide is unstable and under the sway of advisors who are all jockeying for power. Many of them view Genly with suspicion, doubting whether the alliance with Ekumen is actually an invasion or colonization. (Le Guin does not actually interrogate the supposed benevolence of Ekumen in this novel, but that is a can of worms for another day.)
Genly’s already fraught mission is further complicated by his complete bafflement with Gethen. Not only is the planet a cold and desolate place, the culture and biology of its inhabitants are also thoroughly unrecognizable to him. Gethenians live through most of the year as sort of non-binary, non-sexual beings and only experience the impulse to have sex and procreate during certain periods. Whenever this event happens (known as the kemmer), their biology shifts to accomodate the sexual state of their chosen lover. So a Gethenian can bear a child for one season and their lover can bear the next child afterwards. Gender and identity ends up becoming very fluid because of this.
Estraven is one of the high-powered court officials of whom Genly regards with much suspicion, even though Estraven himself is always polite and good humored towards him. It’s actually interesting how Genly’s rigid conception of gender colors his interactions with Gethenians. When the king acts in an irrational and belligerent way, Genly chalks it up to the fact that he is pregnant and his judgment must be compromised because of this. Whenever he thinks that Estraven is being duplicitous towards him, his mental language codes Estraven to be “female” while his actions as sort of dashing and confident are “male” attributes. Le Guin talks about this deliberate coding in an interview she did with The New Yorker.
Interspersed with the narration of Genly’s travails are these beautifully harsh oral histories about Gethen and the important individuals who have become the stuff of legend. They are told as sort of zen parables, except that the moral of the stories are often opaque. One of these “hearth-stories” deal with the concept called the Center of Time, while another discusses the consequences of Gethenians’ weird qualifications about incest. I actually found these interstices among the most moving aspects of the book because they hint at so much emotion while still pulling back, the end almost always leaving the reader with a wistful ache.
One of the many things I appreciated about Le Guin’s wordcraft is how much she committed towards presenting aliens while still interrogating the way our culture writes or presents aliens. I tend to refer to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour with embarrassing frequency, but in one of their episodes they talked about how pop culture’s depictions of aliens say more about our society than the actual possible scenarios in which we might encounter intelligent extraterrestrial life. For this reason, The Left Hand of Darkness is about 1960s politics of Gender and the Cold War (no pun intended) as it is an objective gedankenexperiment about aliens.
I don’t know quite how to temper my superlatives with the right kind of expectations. Yes, this is a difficult world to enter at first, much in the same way as George Orwell’s 1984 or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We were complete shifts in reality. On top of that, there is the added element of an alien race that have layers and layers of historical and socio-biological backstory. I don’t begrudge people who would take in 50 pages of this book and decide that they are out, but it amazes me that a book that is more than 40 years old can still shake many of my foundational assumptions about what it is to be human and how it is to act humanely.