Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a difficult novel to write about, for me anyway. It's one of my top ten favorite SF novels and definitely has my vote for being one of the ten best SF novels ever written. The problem is that I get drawn so deeply into the novel that I find it difficult to stand back and take an analytical look at it.

The title comes from the saying in the book: "The left hand of darkness, the right hand of light." The book does come with a Taoist and Zen background, even to the point that Genly Ai, the POV character, refers to the Yin-Yang symbol when speaking of the people of Gethen. However, knowledge of Taoism and Zen is not necessary for appreciation of the novel.

The story is set on the planet Winter, Gethen as it is called by its inhabitants. Winter is an appropriate name since the planet is in the midst of a glacial period. While this does play an important role in the story, the novel is far more than a simple tale of survival under harsh conditions. The real focus of the novel is the people of Gethen and the question Le Guin asks--what is the effect of gender and constant sexual readiness on the individual and the culture. She asks this by positing a people that do not have a permanent, fixed gender and who are not in a state of readiness for sexual activity.

The people of Gethen are almost completely identical to us and would not be noticed if they were walking down any street or road on earth. There are, though, two significant differences between us and the Gethens. The Gethens are effectively sexually neuter for most of their lives. They show no sexual characteristics and have no interest in sex during this period.

The Gethens have roughly a 26 day cycle: for around 22-3 days they are effectively asexual. Sometime around the 22nd day they begin to undergo changes which will result in becoming a sexual being--either male or female--for about 2-3 days. During this period, kemmer, they develop a strong sex drive, and it becomes very uncomfortable for those who do not engage in sexual activity at this time. Therefore, all Gethenian have a two-three day holiday at this time. No one is expected to be able to function effectively and so all are free at that time.

The significant effect of this is that the average Gethenians therefore have no real sense of being male or female as we do. They are just people and treat each other as such. This has repercussions in behavior, possibly even threatening to non-Gethenians.

As one non-Gethenian observer writes in a report:

The First Mobile [first ambassador] , if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

This limited and strong period of sexual arousal in the Gethenians has resulted in the establishment of kemmer houses in most towns and cities. It is a place where one can go if one is entering kemmer and find others who are also entering kemmer at the same time. Two in kemmer, therefore, meet in a kemmer house and pair off. Usually one is a few hours ahead of the other, so when that person begins to become a male or female, the other person becomes the opposite sex. If the first one starts to become a female, the other will become a male, or a female if the first one becomes a male. If the female becomes pregnant, "she" will remain female until the child is weaned, and she then reverts to being asexual. The "mother," then, during her next kemmer period may just as easily become a male or a female.

The Story:

Genly Ai is the representative of the Ekumen, a loose association of planets, which functions not so much as a galactic government but as sort of a clearing house. His task is to persuade the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. He is sent to live alone on the planet for it is the belief of the Ekumen that total immersion is the best way to develop an understanding of the prevailing culture. Essentially his job is to explain the Ekumen to the Gethenians and eventually the Gethenians to the Ekumen.

Joining the Ekumen opens the planet up to trade with other members, but not trade in the usual sense--but trade in ideas, information, culture, literature, poetry, music. Instantaneous FTL travel is not possible in Le Guin's universe. Einstein still holds true. If Genley Ai returns to the closest Ekumen planet to Gethen he will find that 34 years have passed since he left, in addition to the years has spent on Gethen. Trade is anything, therefore, that can be transmitted by ansible, a "radio" that can transmit messages at FTL speeds.

Gethen has two countries and two quite different cultures. Ai has been set down in Karhide, which has a monarchy that loosely governs the country (one of the Gethenians calls it more of a family quarrel than an effective government), and Orgoreyn, which is becoming a bureaucratic state that is developing a tight control over its population.

Ai's task is to develop an understanding of the Gethenian culture, and this task, difficult as it is, is magnified by the problems he has in dealing with individual Gethenians. Intellectually he knows that these individuals are not male or female, but perhaps neither? both? However, since Estraven, a powerful, influential member of the king's council. appears to be male, Ai treats him as a male and is confused when Estraven acts out of character. This prevents Ai from completely trusting Estraven and this issue is only resolved during the latter part of the novel when the two are thrown together for a long period.

Estraven, on the other hand, fails to completely realize that Ai is an alien and he, therefore, takes for granted that Ai understands his actions. Again, it is only later that Estraven begins to really understand that Ai does not completely grasp the underlying rationale behind his behavior.

Initially, Ai is befriended by and his mission taken up by Estraven. However, power politics are the same, regardless of gender or lack thereof, and Estraven is maneuvered out of power and forced to go into exile in Orgoreyn. Eventually Ai, too, is forced to leave for Orgoreyn, for the king does not see him as an envoy from an extra-planetary organization but as some sort of pervert who is part of a plot to overthrow him.

This is all set against major changes in the cultures of Karhide and Orgoreyn. War is unknown on Gethen. There is individual violence and occasionally raids by small groups, but organized warfare as we know it on earth is unknown, up to this point anyway. Orgoreyn is in the process of developing strong controls over its citizenry. In Karhide, one of the king's council has discovered the concepts of patriotism and nationalism and is busy promulgating them during his weekly radio broadcasts. Both trends can be seen as making it possible to activate large numbers of people, something which eventually could lead to the formation of armies and, therefore, war. And there is and has been a long-running border dispute between the two countries, a situation that is ready-made for a war.

What happens to Ai and Estraven in Orgoreyn then takes up the second part of the novel, which leads to the resolution of Ai's main problem--getting an agreement on a treaty with the Ekumen. And, as always, there is a price to be paid.

Le Guin doesn't give us the story as a typical chronological narrative. Much of it is told from Ai's POV, but interspersed are notes from Estraven's diary giving us his/her (English lacks a pronoun here and "it" just doesn't fit) view of Ai and some information about what is happening and why, at least from Estraven's POV. In addition are various tales, myths, legends, and stories that give the reader bits and pieces of Karhidish society, a far more entertaining method of filling in the background than straight narrative lecturing.

Overall Rating: perhaps the best way is to say that this is the novel I always mention when someone asks me to recommend "a good SF novel for someone who doesn't read SF." Each time I read it, I always end up thinking that this is what SF could be and should be, but too seldom is.


  1. Fred, I promise a more coherent response in a few days (or more). My mind is fuzzy with anesthesia (from yesterday) and pain-killers, so anything I read or write today is much like the ravings of a Bowery bum. However, I am keenly interested in the LeGuin book and your analysis/review. More to follow (when my mind recovers). Regards from the drug-induced fog on the Gulf coast.

  2. R. T.,

    Sounds like me on a typical Monday morning.

    Get well soon, and waiting on your comments.

  3. Great post, Fred! I loved this book when I first read it, and your post brings back fond memories. It's been a long time since I last read it, though.

    I have to say I laughed at this quote: "One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience." It really does make me want to find the time for a re-read.

  4. I find that I go back and read it again every 4 or 5 years.

    That quote is a favorite of mine. I had to stop and think about that the first time I read it. And, each time I come across it, I have to stop once more.

    I hope you find the time soon.