This is the story of Winter, an Earth-like planet with two major differences: conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of year, and the inhabitants are all of the same sex. Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or of life beyond their own world. And when a strange envoy from space brings new of a vast coalition of planets which they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief. (from back of book)
Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
Finding female authors in the science fiction genre can be a challenge (which is highly unfortunate since some of the best science fiction I’ve read has been by women) but for some reason it took me a while to actually pick up an Ursula Le Guin book despite how much I had heard about her. After reading this book, I kind of fell in love.
I always appreciate those science fiction novels that also have something highly important to say about today’s world. Despite the fact that the settings are in different times and often different planets, the parallels are still drawn and are often simultaneously enlightening and terrifying. The Left Hand of Darkness is no exception to this. Le Guin manages to both set up a whole new world in enough detail that we can really see this world as existing while at the same time making comparisons to the world we live in today. Not only do we see similarities between Winter (the planet in the novel) and Earth, but the differences are striking enough to raise questions about how our society works as well, especially on questions of gender identity.
On Winter, everyone is male, until they reach a stage called ‘kemmer’ in which one partner basically grows the necessary parts in order to reproduce. Basically, they become female for the duration of ‘kemmer’ and pregnancy. This in itself was interesting, but what I found was the best part was how Genly, the envoy from Earth, reacted to this phenomenon. Not only was he fascinated at how differently sexuality played into this society than our own, but it also becomes evident that Genly has his own biases and stereotypes that he attached to the female sex, despite the fact that he is from our future (or at least that is assumed). Conversely, the Gethenians find his ideas of sex and sexuality strangely perverted and don’t understand how he could possibly live his life in perpetual ‘kemmer’. (Gethenians only feel sexual desire during ‘kemmer’ and it is often a cause of great stress.) Their ideas of monogamy are also quite different from our (American) societiy in that monogamous couples are quite rare and sometimes looked down on. Genly constantly struggles with navigating in a world so vastly different from his own not only in customs but in ideas of sexuality. This is a fairly constant theme throughout the book and it is fascinating how Le Guin’s often subtle examinations of these differences can be so impactful.
Overall, this book was not only a great look into a whole new imagined world, but an insightful and thought-provoking look into our own. I applaud Le Guin on this marvelous achievement and am looking forward to reading so much more of her work.
“The only thing the makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
“He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war.”
“He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”