The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. LeGuin
At the edge of known space sits Winter, a planet just barely habitable. The Ekumen of Known Worlds sends Genly Ai as an envoy to welcome this world into its fellowship. He comes alone, so they know he arrives not as invader, but friend. He comes defenseless, so he cannot threaten. He comes with honesty, so they know he cannot lie.
Winter stands unique. When the Hain seeded all those worlds millennia ago, they put humans with slight modifications on every planet. Everyone, more or less, is the same. But not here. Not on Winter.
Here, there is no such a thing as gender. The residents of Winter become male or female during each mating cycle, and then return to a neuter form after.
How has release from sex and any kind of gender differences influenced the culture of Winter? Will their uniqueness make them more or less likely to join the Ekumen? What will they make of the “pervert” Genly Ai?
And what will precipitate the first war that Winter has ever seen?
I know LeGuin best for her Earthsea novels, though she’s written a large amount of novels beyond them. This is the first of hers I’ve tackled outside of Earthsea.
The book never “grabbed” me. Strong characters made bold decisions that changed the face of a world as well as their own lives and perceptions, but I always felt a bit removed from the action.
The book presents itself as the report Genly Ai sends back to the Ekumen. In other words, he’s guaranteed to survive, and he’s writing about everything after the fact. Now, that device can work well for storytelling. Something similar worked very well for Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. LeGuin makes some good use of the device when she foreshadows, for instance, Ai’s starvation later on in the narrative.
And yet, because Ai keeps a running commentary on what happens, it felt far more like “telling” than “showing” to me. At times Ai got out of the way of the story, and there it sang. And at other times when I wanted to immerse myself in the narrative, Ai steps in to kindly explain something and I found myself thrown out.
In other words, LeGuin used the device properly – it read like a report to superiors – but the device didn’t work well for me.
That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. I simply didn’t get sucked in as much as I would have liked.
One device that jarred me initially and then became a highlight of the book: LeGuin switches first-person narrators. Basically, Ai uses the diary of another character in his report, allowing the reader to get into the head of two different characters. Through the eyes of these two, the reader really gets to see how alien both the inhabitants of Winter and “normal” people are. As I said, this device startled me when I first came across the “switch.” After all, usually “I” means the same person through a whole novel! By the end, though, I looked forward to reports of the same event from two very different sets of eyes.
LeGuin’s examination of gender and its effect on society fascinated me. I certainly don’t agree with everything she wrote, but it made a neat story. Of course, a story with such a hook could easily become a kind of strange pornography. LeGuin doesn’t fall to that. She does describe how sex works for the residents of Winter, but within context of the narrative device: It’s a simple report on how things work. There’s no titillation here.
One of her posits is that without the drive for sex, there’s also no drive to war. That doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict – she shows plenty of conflict! – but nothing that any other planet would call war. There’s plenty of political intrigue. There’s lots of personal grudges. And yet, the nations of Winter have no concept of larger-scale conflict. Speaking as a Christian reader, I enjoyed this observation. A change in chemistry or drive didn’t make for a sinless world; it simply changed how the sin showed up.
LeGuin avoids a common sci-fi fallacy and allows different nations on the planet with wildly different cultures and political systems, and each nation has different cultural subsets within them. She allows religion as well! I applaud those choices!
Was this a good book?
As I noted, it didn’t suck me in as much as I would have liked, but LeGuin crafted a realistic world that displayed true alienness and complexity. She portrayed realistic and sympathetic characters. I did enjoy it.
So, sure, it’s a good book. It’s just not the kind of book I’d like to read two of in a row!