The Left Hand of Darkness
Reviewed date: 2004 May 24
Synopsis: The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent Genly Ai as its envoy to make first contact with the inhabitants of the planet Gethen. The Gethenians are friendly enough, but Mr. Ai must learn their culture and persuade them to request membership or association with the Ekumen. One man alone among a world of alien people who he misunderstands and who in turn misunderstand him, Genly Ai must survive political conflicts that tend to leave key figures assassinated or disgraced and banished forever. He must avoid becoming a pawn of various factions, or if he is a pawn, must assure that he is the pawn of the right faction.
Genly Ai fails to persuade the King of Karhide to petition for association with the Ekumen, and the political fallout drives him to flee to the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. In Orgoreyn he manages to bungle things enough to end up in a concentration camp. He is rescued by a Karhidish traitor (the same traitor who got Genly Ai driven to Orgoreyn) and they attempt to flee on foot back to Karhide--a foolhardy 800-mile trip across dangerous ice and snow--did I mention on foot? Yeah, 800 miles on foot. Wheeee!!!
Critique: The Left Hand of Darkness is less about the plot than about the Gethenians. Gethenians are ambisexual. Imagine a race of people that is mostly asexual. That is, they are genderless for five-sixths of the time, but when they are in kemmer (that is, in heat) they can become either sex. Gethenians are neither male nor female, but any Gethenian can become pregnant or impregnate someone. Such a system of sexuality would have profound impact on the organization and character of society. The first half of The Left Hand of Darkness concentrates on showing how this affects society at large. A sexually neuter society (Gethenians have no sexual desire when not in kemmer) is apparently less likely to 1) drive fast cars (Gethenians never drive faster than 25 miles per hour), 2) desire technological advance (Gethenian technology advances slowly, so slowly that little has changed in 3000 years), and 3) make war (murder and such happens, but fullscale war is unheard of. Gethenians just don't get that worked up about things.) Apparently sex is the root cause of thrillseeking, materialism, and hatred; or so this book would have us believe. Whether you believe it or not, it is an interesting read.
The second half of the book concentrates on the effect of Gethenian sexuality on individual relationships. Genly Ai's 800 mile trek across the frozen Gethenian wasteland give him plenty of time to observe and interact with his Gethenian friend, Estraven.
The Left Hand of Darkness is not a book to be read for an action-packed plot. It isn't dull or full of philosophizing, but it's more of an idea book, a book that prompts one to think about how sex, sexual desires, and sexual roles have shaped Earthly politics, societies, and interpersonal relationships. Personally I think that wars and thrillseeking and materialism are not sexual problems at their root, and that Ursula Le Guin got the Gethenian society is entirely wrong. But it's still a great book to read just for how it prompts one to think.
Let me leave you with this quote, an illustration of how the lack of sexuality renders Gethenians nearly unable to comprehend nationalism or patriotism.
Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession...Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.