(1969 / 2017) Ursula K. LeGuin, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, xvii + 305pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22162-8
Ursula Le Guin’s classic tale has received considerable attention over the last year, with a BBC audio adaptation and a release as an SF Masterwork by Gollancz. Re-reading it now, it is difficult to accept that the story was first published in 1969 and won the Hugo in 1970.
Genly Ai is an ethnologist, sent to observe and make contact with the people of the winter world of Gethen. The protocols of his visit are carefully organised, so as to ensure the civilisation of the Gethenians is not disturbed before it is ready to join the larger coalition of humanity.
The Gethenians are divided into two great nations, both of which have their politics, with different senators and ministers scheming against one another. We join the story as Genly is negotiating with the first of these nations, the monarchy of Karhide and follow his progress in trying to establish a relationship between them and their human kindred from beyond – the Ekumen, an interstellar alliance of planets. He is assisted by Karhide’s first minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who speaks with him during one of the nation’s great parades to celebrate the completion of a massive building project. But Estraven is falling from favour and Genly’s diplomatic plan quickly breaks down as he becomes a pawn in the games of the aristocracy.
It is here, early in the book that we are also introduced to Gethen’s unique gender changing physiology. The term “The King was pregnant”, could on one level be seen as disturbing gender norms for the purpose of defamiliarisation, but in this story, it becomes so much more than that. Gethenians, who become a gender in their ‘kemmer’ a period of intense arousal for them that lasts six days and happens every few weeks or months. By using Genly as the perspective character, an outsider to the society of Karhide, we, the readers, are made to look upon this as the norm, and to see our own culture of gendered values as strange, just as his are strange to them.
Genly leaves Karhide and travels to Gethen’s rival nation, Orgoreyn. Here, he is treated worse than before and betrayed by those he chooses to speak to, ending up in a prison camp, where Estraven acts to rescue him. Outcast from both kingdoms, the two then set out across the harshest ice to find a transmitter from which they can contact Genly’s ship and reunite him with its crew.
Le Guin’s writing also conveys a subtly in its dialogue. Estraven’s way of speaking is in some ways liberated from the sexual politics we might be used to reading into the words of others. There is something knowing and both masculine and feminine in the way the first minister speaks, but I am aware this is as much in the way I read the character through my own experience as it might be in the author’s intention.
Reading The Left Hand of Darkness today offers different reflections on our society than the reflections a reader in the 1970s might have, but the story remains relevant, and the mirror it holds up to the modern world is just as bright and piercing in what it reveals. The story shines a light on the assumptions we make about each other, the way in which we talk to each other, the socialisation of our children and many more elements of our world that we take for granted.
See also Connor Eddle's take on The Left Hand of Darkness.
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