The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K le Guin
Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness is surely one of the best sci-fi novels ever written. I read it first in the seventies and now, about four decades later, it comes across as inventive and fresh as on that first reading.
“Consider:” writes the Investigator. “There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well timed.”
And again. “Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.”
Winter here is the planet Gethen, a backward world seventeen light-years from its nearest neighbour. Ursula Le Guin dares to imagine a society where males and females do not exist in the conventional sense. Instead, the inhabitants live in a neuter state for more than three quarters of their lives; when they do become sexually active – a state known as kemmer, they have no choice as to which gender role they perform. All can seed children; all can bear them.
The main protagonist, Genly Ai, is from Earth, and arrives on Gethen as an envoy from the Ekumen, a federation of planets that have come together for trade and the exchange of knowledge. The Ekumen has already sent Investigators to Gethen and they have lodged a report. Genly’s job now is to persuade the Gethenians to join. Genly is male, though Le Guin does not say so explicitly until quite far on in the book. However, she makes it difficult for a male reader to think of “him” as anything else by the use of masculine pronouns and terminology throughout the novel. Genly’s sexuality is less clear, which adds an extra dimension to the whole narrative.
Gethen is is the grip of an ice age and temperatures on the planet can be sub zero for much of the year. Two Gethenian countries, Karhide and Orgoreyn, are at loggerheads over a border territory. However, they do not declare war but hide behind a uniquely Gethenian principle called shifgrethor, where anything goes so long as no one loses face.
The Gethenians regard Genly variously as a freak, a monster, a spy or a liar. With few exceptions, even when they want to believe in his starship and in interstellar travel, they cannot bring themselves to so. One of those exceptions is the supposed traitor Estraven, and it is with their love/hate relationship that much of the action is concerned. At the beginning, Genly neither likes nor trusts Estraven; by the end, he realises he can trust no one else.
The Left Hand of Darkness is narrated in the first person, mostly by Genly but in part by Estraven in the form of a journal. There are also a few third person snippets from Gethenian legend. Genly endures some horrific treatment in the course of his mission but in spite of that pursues his objective with patience and dedication. Isolated forever from friends and family because of the nature of light-speed travel, he endures extreme cold, hunger and inhuman beatings among a truly alien people who will spy, scheme, lie, imprison and kill to avoid facing the truth: there really is a starship orbiting their sun; the Ekumen’s mission is peaceful; Genly is indeed one of two separate “species” that populate all the other worlds of space.
Packed off to an isolated “voluntary farm” in Orgoreyn, Genry is subjected to mind-bending drug therapy and comes near to death before being sprung from prison by Estraven. The pair embark on an epic journey across the snow and ice of the Gethenian arctic region. How their friendship and mutual trust develops through adversity is at once moving and strangely erotic.
The ending may not be quite what we expect or want but it is satisfying. Perhaps we shall never know whether worlds like Gethen exist in our galaxy, nevertheless very little suspension of disbelief is required to acknowledge Winter as a real place. A frozen, alien desert it may be, but it is too like present-day Earth for us to doubt.
One of the most intriguing features of this novel is how Le Guin treats all her characters as masculine. If I have any regret at all, it is that she did not write an alternative version using feminine terminology, and casting Genly as a woman. How fascinating that would be!