The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) that is breathtaking in terms of its world-building and deceptively simple given its slimness. Le Guin is a well-known name in the world of fantasy writing and children’s literature. Writing primarily in the 60s and 70s, she was one of the few women who wrote in a field largely dominated by mostly white men. Le Guin’s writings, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, which came out in the year of the Stonewall Riots, added a different perspective to existing literature. Most of all, it tackled larger human, social and philosophical questions through science, calling attention to an ideal of humanism, understood in its best sense, and of the need to rally beyond barriers of race, ethnicity and culture.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, an Envoy named Genly Ai from an advanced humanoid race is sent to the land of Karhide on a planet called Gethen to propose an intergalactic alliance with the Ekumen, a coalition that seeks to forge unity between the far flung planets of the universe and to unite them. In a land of political intrigue and vendetta, the astute and exiled Prime Minister of Karhide, Estraven is the only one who believes in Genly Ai’s cause and eventually dies for it after saving him and making an incredible journey across snow, mountain, forest and ice.
Each state in Gethen has evolved into its own society, politics, language and custom which the Envoy observes and analyses in an anthropological manner typical of Le Guin’s writing. Among these, one of the most striking aspects of Gethenian society, is the notion of gender understood by the term ‘kemmer.’
Gethenians are androgynous and ambisexual and become female across a cycle of 28 days at the end of which they go into ‘kemmer’, a few days in which they are sexually active while any partner in kemmer can conceive. This idea about cyclic gender was incredible for its time and had important implications. It envisaged a society in which continuous sexuality was no longer a norm which meant that a person could be on any point of a gender spectrum at any time. It also put forth the idea of ‘men’ sharing the reproductive labour of child-bearing and rearing so that gender was no longer one of the most prominent organising principles of a society. This reproductive serendipity is novel even for today’s times.
The study of the polis between Karhide and its rival state of Orgeryn run by a Commensal instead of a king, is another scintillating piece of writing. It traverses the gulf between a monarchy and communal governance touching upon notions such as Shifgrethor or personal prestige in Karhide to Orgeryn’s group conditioning and the boundaries between love for one’s motherland and nationalism as a political tool for power.
Amidst all this, Le Guin throws in mystical narratives about spiritual cults (inspired by her interest in Taoism), stories of origins about places, people and names from the points of views of different characters. There is also a breathless nightmarish account of the Envoy himself, describing his experiences to the Farm which eerily echo the treatment of Jews in concentration camps.
What is especially stunning is the journey that Estraven and Genly Ai take together, a journey that is both metaphorical and spiritual in order to meet halfway across their cultural differences and to forge a friendship and loyalty for a greater cause. The ecological descriptions of snow, forest, mountain and the terrain they traverse are vivid and detailed as is the empathy with which societies and polities are described.
While the novel is majestic in its sweep, it does have a few setbacks. The most striking of which is the representations of gender itself. Although we are reminded that Estraven is both a man and a woman, even in his/her mysterious elusiveness s/he appears largely ‘male’ both because of the travesty of language and of a template of femininity that has itself come into question in recent years. But The Left Hand of Darkness is a world by itself like most of Le Guin’s novels and seen in the context of its own time, it certainly spoke to a different age.