I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that, as a feminist and a sci-fi fan, I've only recently read my first Ursula K. Le Guin novel. Part of why I hadn't delved into her work before was the immense scope of her writing; where on earth do you start with an author who has been prolific for decades upon decades?
After her death, I realised that I had to stop dawdling and pick something. After asking for recommendations, and as my partner and I are currently collecting the SF Masterworks novel releases, I decided upon The Left Hand of Darkness.
Genly Ai is the 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 civilisation, the Ekumen. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin has shown her supreme skill in world-building with her creation of Winter / Gethen. A frozen planet with a complex culture, intense political intrigue, and home to an ambisexual society, it is as alien to we readers as it is to Genly, through who's eyes we mostly view this planet.
Genly is a mirror for the human reader. He is uncomfortable with the Gethenians lack of gender, and constantly confused at how what he views as masculine and feminine traits are combined in each individual. He even feels his own masculine virility, something he values greatly, challenged by being in their company.
In comparison, we see how the Gethenians view Genly as strange; they can't understand how humans can cope being sexually motivated all of the time, not just for a few brief days. Each culture is as shocking to the other.
Through his interactions with Estraven, the evolution of their relationship from dislike to friendship, and possibly more, Genly comes to understand Gethenian society; that it may be different, but that doesn't make it wrong or inferior to his own.
Estraven, likewise, sees the value in Genly's culture, and that contact with the Ekumen, the opening of Winter up to other worlds, as something that will be good for his people. Estraven is a patriot, one who will seemingly betray their country if it's for their greater good.
The relationship between these two teaches the reader the value in difference, how it helps us to grow.
The novel as a whole questions the importance of gender, on whether, if we didn't already live in a society so affected by it, would it really be so important in our every day lives. On how much of what we think of as gender is natural, innate, and how much has been created by society, and therefore what biases exist within it.
It also alludes to the complexity of loyalty and betrayal, and what the true meaning of patriotism is.
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The book took a short while for me to get into. As we are presented with such a new world, with laws and etiquette all of its own, the amount of information, and so little context to understand it at the early stages of the novel, it is more than a little overwhelming. But as it goes along, I got into a stride. This was thanks both to the interspersed chapters on myths and legends - which help to explain specific features about Gethenian culture, as well as larger philosophical aspects of society - and the developing friendship between our two primary characters.
It did feel a little incongruous hearing all the members of an ambisexual race referred to as 'he'; it caused me to visualise them more as men unless I actively forced myself to alter my perceptions (Le Guin has said she probably wouldn't have used that pronoun if she had written the novel later).
Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a completely fascinating sci-fi novel, revolutionary and genre defining when it was first published in 1969, with characters who are flawed but to whom you grow attached. Like all the best science fiction, it causes one to reanalyse what we view as normal, and it feels very relevant at the moment as we question the place of gender in society more than ever. It's definitely not something to blow through; you owe it to yourself to take your time with this one, and feel the full depth of Le Guin's words and ideas.
So a little question for you out there; what Ursula K. Le Guin novel should I tackle next? Another novel from the Hainish cycle? Earthsea? I'd love to hear your recommendations on Twitter or Instagram.
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