Genre : Science Fiction
Publisher : Ace
Length : 304 pages
Format : Ebook
Rating : 4,5 stars
Publication Year: 1969
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose – and change – their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.
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.
A human emissary is sent on Winter, a planet home to aliens able to change their gender. His role is to convince one of the nations of Winter, Karhide, to join an intergalactic civilization called the Ekumen. In order to make his case, the emissary must learn about Winter, its nations and its inhabitants: starting by leaving behind his own views of the alien culture and gender but also, by trusting the people who are trying to help him.
A few days ago, I gushed about The Dispossessed, another novel in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. The Left Hand of Darkness is equally brilliant yet, it didn’t work quite as well as the The Dispossessed for me. Both novels have similarities: they follow humans who are trying to adapt to new cultures and understand people that are different from them. However, one of the big differences between The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness is that the latter deals with a human emissary on planet populated by aliens – and not humans from a different culture – making the need for a cultural understanding even greater. If Shevek’s clumsiness in The Dispossessed makes him look dumb in the eyes of the Urrasti, Ai’s clumsiness is seen as a possible threat to an alien civilization.
Speaking of the aliens, they are humanoid creatures able to change gender or, more exactly, they are genderless a majority of the time. They are only able to have sexual relationships when they are in kemmer, a hyper sexual state where their bodies are able to bear children.
Ai can’t help but to superpose his views on genders on the aliens, he decides to use masculine pronouns (he/his) for every alien even in their genderless form. If I understood correctly, Ai decides that masculine pronoun suit the aliens better than feminine pronouns because, while the aliens are quiet, subdued and peaceful – which are obviously feminine personality traits according to Ai– they are still smart people and he is able to relate to them so, it’s easier to call them by masculine pronouns (I’m not a fan of Ai).
The book has an interesting structure, most of the chapters are narrated from Ai’s perspective but a few chapters are narrated from Estraven’s, an alien and former minister of Karhide turned traitor when he decided to help Ai makes his case to the king about the Ekumen. I had a strong preference for his chapters compared to Ai’s because they gave a lot of insights on the inner workings and the politics of Winter. I also found Estraven a much more interesting and clever character to follow than Ai who was making mistakes left and right.
The two perspectives are separated by small interludes that give more background on the alien culture by telling us tales and facts about Winter. The interludes added a lot to the story but one of my issue with this book is that they were used as worldbuilding devices and I didn’t think they always appeared at the right moment in the story. For example, in one of those interludes, Le Guin gives information about the aliens’ gender cycle – a central information in the story – however, she decides to withheld this particular bit of information until the later half of the novel. I’m not sure I understand why. If the reader hasn’t figured out that by themselves at this point in the book, it’s a bit too late to explain it. I would have understood this choice better if the information had been withheld from Ai but, it’s not the case, only the reader is left in the dark.
After reading two of Le Guin’s novels, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really like her human main characters. They always make stupid decisions; they trust the wrong people and their views of the worlds they visit is completely shadowed by their own cultural biases. However, while I always dislike them, Le Guin writes them in a way that makes it impossible to hate them because, I always understand why they make so many bad decisions. It also makes their character growth all the more interesting. I really liked seeing Ai and Estraven’s unlikely friendship develop once Ai understood that Estraven was there to help him (and when he started seeing him less as a weird creature and more as an actual intelligent being) . By the end of the novel, both characters come to understand, respect and care for each other in their own ways, no matter how different they are.
This idea of opposition is at the heart of the story: the novel follows a traitor and an alien emissary traveling on a planet divided by two nations with opposing ideologies (very much like Earth at the time the novel was published) and the people of Winter don’t know if they should accept an alliance with a power bigger than them. Refusing the alliance would be losing an opportunity to learn from other planets, accepting would mean relinquishing the individual powers of Winter under a single federation.
The Left Hand of Darkness is about understanding the other by questioning our own cultural and social biases. It’s about people from opposite sides working together even if they see the world the differently. It’s about gender and how much it influences the way we think and see other people.
It’s another brilliant book from Le Guin and even if it wasn’t quite on the level of The Dispossessed for me, it’s still excellent.
For now, I’m not rating it five stars (sorry Andreas 😉) but I’m pretty sure I will up the rating after a re-read.
Vintage Science Fiction Month is a month-long event celebrating science fiction works published/produced before 1979. The event was created by Andrea from the blog The Little Red Reviewer and it is co-hosted by Jacob from the blog RedStarReviews. You can find more about the event by following the Twitter account @VintageSciFi_.