Given science fiction’s near infinite palette of available colors, it was bound to happen one day. Thankfully, Ursula Le Guin was the one. The idea: androgynous humans. Winner of several awards, the social significance of science fiction has never had a stronger proponent than The Left Hand of Darkness, the meaning of gender never so relevant to mankind.
In the book, Genly Ai is an envoy sent to the planet Gethen to convince the nation of Karrhide to join Earth’s Ekumen (a politically neutral organization supporting the dissemination of knowledge, culture, and commerce). What he encounters are the native Gethens, an androgynous people who go into kemmer once a month, physically adapting to the features of any mate they encounter during that time. Mixed up in the local politics is Estraven, a Gethen Genly meets as part of his inter-planetary task, and the two subsequently become embroiled in a fiasco that has strong social and political consequences for Karrhide. Events threatening to spin out of control, no diplomat has perhaps ever faced such unique and intriguing circumstances.
While political turmoil motivates the plot in umbrella fashion, the majority of the novel’s tension arises from Genly’s coming to terms with an asexual humanity. Unsure whether to be repulsed or attracted by their neuter form, his encounters with Gethens and time spent with Estraven open many questions into the manner in which he, and subsequently the reader, perceive gender. The effect that gender neutrality has on society likewise poses a number of profound and difficult situations for Genly to overcome if he is to perform his duty as an envoy properly. After all, when a king is able to go on maternity leave, a whole new mindset regarding life is necessary.
The setting, while understated, is a hugely important aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness. The planet experiencing an ice age, cold dominates life. Researching Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole travails before writing her novel, Le Guin infuses a strong sense of the Antarctic into the story. Atypical yet attractive sci-fi material, the trip Genly takes across a frozen wasteland is particularly well drawn, the cold creeping into the reader’s fingers holding the book. That the unending winter acts as a symbolic representation of the homogeneity inherent to Gethen gender shows a melding of substance and setting, a fine literary touch from Le Guin.
Another important aspect of the novel are the descriptions of Gethen belief. Added in the form of epigraphs and chapter interludes, the reader not only develops an understanding of the Gethen mindset, but a more knowledgeable perception of the contrast between Genly and the natives’ view of relationships, individual to societal. Hovering between religion and philosophy, these pieces flesh out the culture in a manner Confucius or Laozi would appreciate, Le Guin exhibiting her subtle, philosophical side in the process.
In the end, The Left Hand of Darkness, with its social, political, and gender concerns, is one of the most important science fiction works ever written. A thought experiment in the vein of another great Le Guin book, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness explores human behavior and perspective in a familiar human but alien sexual environment easily imagined thanks to the descriptive prose. The plot device of androgynous humans possible only in sci-fi, Le Guin takes further advantage of the genre by detailing a coldly beautiful setting, a planet’s ice age in full swing. Political intrigue (a la Greene or Le Carre) mixed with strong social commentary, the novel is more than enjoyable reading. Highly recommended.