Ursula K. LeGuin, Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. (Panther edition 1973.)

Reviewed by Simon Mahony

Ursula LeGuin's, The Left Hand of Darkness: Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the year's best S.F. novel (so it says on the cover of my 1973 reprint) has a lot to live up to as the first novel since Frank Herbert's Dune to win both of these prestigious awards. Had my impressions of this novel changed with the passage of time between my first reading, attested by the yellowing pages with "U.K. 35p" marked on the back cover and "12p" in scrawled biro inside the front one, and now? Certainly I had changed in the intervening years; how would this influence the triangular relationship between writer, reader and text?

This outstanding novel is set on the freezing inhospitable world of Winter where the inhabitants cling to life in the narrow margins between the Northern and Southern glaciers. Life is harsh and errors mean certain death. Genly Ai is the 'First Mobile' or first direct contact with the inhabitants of Gethen from the 'Ekumen', not so much an empire as a league of planets and peoples (3000 nations on 83 worlds). A facilitating body (it says) set up to develop communication, trade, and harmony between its members.

The story is told, in the first person, by the two major protagonists, Genly Ai and Estraven, Prime Minister, before his exile, of Karhide, the first kingdom of Gethen visited by Ai. Using this narrative technique their nature is gradually revealed by words and deed although more is revealed by the way they misinterpret each other. The novel is interspersed with short chapters of tales from Karhidish legend which gives the reader an additional level of background insight into Karhidish culture (and another set of tools by which to evaluate Etraven and the Karhiders).

Other than the harsh landscape, the main obstacle facing Ai is the physical nature of the Gethenians: they are hermaphrodite. Not for them, however, the striking symbiosis of both female and male characteristics much favored by ancient sculpture; most of the time they are sexless, neither men nor women. A short cyclical period of sexuality (Kemmer, which lasts four days a month) brings them into 'heat' where they take on female physical characteristics and induce by touch the opposite sexual characteristic in a companion. Only then, and for these few days, do they become male or female sexual beings.

Throughout the book, Ai struggles with his interpretation of the Gethenian sexuality. LeGuin constantly refers to the Gethenians as 'he', using the male pronoun and other grammatical indicators, which reinforces the reader's impression (and confusion) of the Gethanians' maleness. Ai, the alien, the outsider, the off-worlder, finds great difficulty with the 'alien' nature of these people. In a conversation with Estraven he rightly notes that for other races "the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything." In their sexless state Ai still regards these strange beings as male but with a strange and seemingly prejudiced antipathy towards any feminine aspects of their nature. Female traits are always negative; for example in Ai's early meeting with the insane king (apparently madness is a necessary quality in a King of Karhide) when the ruler laughs it is "shrilly like an angry woman," or when he is sullen "as an old she-otter in a cage."

How does society operate without the rigid distinction between the sexes? For one thing there is no war—a situation Esrtaven's successor Tibe seeks to change for his own advantage as he aggravates a border dispute with Orgoreyn (as sub-plot and vehicle for a display of political intrigue, stretched loyalties and an examination of the nature of patriotism). They have murders and forays into a neighbour's territory but never wars. They have no concept or language to describe such conflict just as they have none to describe men and women.

The Ekumen sees all humankind as related and coming from ancient origins on Earth. It is suggested that the Gethenain physiology might have been the result of some type of genetic experiment. An added dimension, surprisingly not suggested by the author, might be that this is the result of the Terrans' need to adapt to the harsh climate of Winter. So much of Mankind's efforts (according to Freud) are directed towards the pursuit of sexual conquest and fulfillment that they surely would not have survived in this unforgiving environment without some sort of major change. Take sex out of the equation and what might man accomplish? An obvious reaction to this story (well it was to me on that earlier reading—the one fact that remained) but not one explored here by LeGuin.

This is a tale about loyalty and betrayal and how these two sides of the same coin are misunderstood and confused. The two main protagonists are thrown together towards the end as Estraven rescues Ai from an Orgoreyn labour camp, and they must make the long and dangerous trek across the glacier to Karhide (and relative safety, although not for Estraven). During this journey they are completely alone, sharing the confined space of the tent and the labours of dragging the sledge weighed down with tent and provisions across snow, ice and the glacier. This intimate contact brings out, for the first time, intimate discussion as they dispense with the ever-present 'shifgrethor', the pride and prestige relationship that dictates the way Gethenians relate to each other.

It is difficult not to read into the narrative the tensions of the time in which it was written. Are these the author's intentions, purely the reader's expectation, or our interactive response to the text? This is the time of the re-awakening of the women's movement in the USA after a long period of stagnation. It is the height of the cold war.

Contrast the anarchic, decentralized and flexible society of Karhide—albeit ruled over by a madman (could this too be part of the analogy?)—with the totalitarian, centralized, rigid, and linear state that is Orgoreyn: broken up into Commensalities within which "they provide all units with jobs". Karhide is rife with factionism and political intrigue, and in contrast Orgoreyn seems so appealing to Ai—at least until his incarceration and brutal treatment in the labour camp where the authorities hide him, covering their tracks with rumours of his death.

Since the Odyssey and Aeneid (and many earlier foundation myths) the hero's journey is a familiar topos, in the case of SF usually from Earth to different planets. This is true here but further reading reveals that there are (like for Odysseus and Aeneas) journeys within journeys. Ai's most important journey is not from Earth to Winter but his onerous and risky journey across the wastes of ice, together with Estraven, the native. This journey across the ice reflects another: Ai's true journey into himself, his growing awareness of himself and of his relationship with Estraven. In that journey they find a closeness, a love like that between Estraven and his 'brother' (told in an inset-tale) that can never be.

Like travelers in the Odyssey, Ali and Estraven are granted, upon formulaic request, shelter and food from strangers; a necessary reciprocal code to maximize the chances of survival in this harsh and unforgiving landscape especially amongst those "who live on the edge of the edge" without which no sane person would ever venture out onto the roads buried under snow and ice.

Once Ai accepts Estraven's femininity, he begins to be able to accept his own feminine aspects which previously he had considered to be weakness and exclusively for women. He finds the courage to break the final barrier of his manly pride, to accept and even voice his vulnerability. At the moment Ai gains profound love he also loses it as Estraven dies shot down, betrayed by an apparent friend. And here he learns the price of love: love gained and love lost go hand in hand, as joy and sorrow, light and darkness. Just as they reach their goal, where they know parting must come, Ai loses what he has so painfully gained—love and intimacy with another person. After he has experienced the profundity of love he has to experience the profundity of sorrow, and emerge from both with greater knowledge. Here the reader might remark on the choice of name for LeGuin's problematic 'hero': Ai. Like the Aias of Sophocles the sound of Genly's name is "a cry of pain" and as the tragic chorus well understands, "man must suffer to be wise".

As in Taoist philosophy, light and dark are not in conflict but co-exist, each defining the other rather than struggling to eliminate each other. Both are essential for life to combine as are good and evil, positive and negative, male and female. Opposites are reconciled to achieve balance and harmony. This is the implied message of LeGuin's story. How much would we as human beings achieve if we removed the continual contest of sexuality and how greatly would our lives be enriched if we, both men and women, were allowed to feel the entire range of human emotions and not be restricted to only some of them. Human sexuality is a question of tradition and prejudice. Taoist peace and harmony may be achieved on an individual level, and indeed on a world level, if we acknowledge and cultivate the female and male principles in each of us. Thus do we become whole.

The interesting calendar where years are counted backwards and forwards from the present so that Gethenians are constantly in Year One also needs to be included here on a minor note. This also feeds into the Taoist perception of harmony where the emphasis is always on the 'now' with energies being directed here on the moment rather than on (as often is the case in Western thought) what may happen in the future. This is not to say that no thought is given to the future, or that we should live in an unrestrained, hedonistic present, but that there should be more balance between the two. We exist and can only exist in the present moment, however hard we plan and work towards an unseen future.

That to one side, LeGuin weaves an intricate tale that draws in and immerses the reader in this new and strange world of Winter. A world where a study of its inhabitants necessitates an exploration of the nature of sexuality—loyalty, betrayal, oneness. A story teller of the highest magnitude, LeGuin rightly deserves the awards for this novel (which really should be read in mainstream literary circles as well as by genre fans), for the way in which it engages with the human condition in elegant and superbly descriptive prose. The author displays insight of both the social and political spectrum and engages the reader with both philosophical and psychological issues.

Authorial intrusion can arguably be read in the one chapter that does not fall into the earlier given categories, 'The Question of Sex'. Structured into the tale as 'field notes' from an earlier investigator (of the type that do the preliminary groundwork but do not make contact) we find in the penultimate sentence that this is a female voice, the sole female in the novel. Here there are suggestions for the peculiarities of Gethanian sexual physiology, well thought out though suitably vague descriptions of their sexual cycle, how this fits in with conventions of pair-bonding and family ties. Sex is a part of a cycle so there can be no unconsenting sex, no rape, no division into strong and weak, owner and chattel. And importantly, no war. The 'investigator' postulates the link between "continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression" and suggests that some consider "war to be a purely masculine" activity—"a vast Rape"—although she herself is "no expert on the attractions of violence or the nature of war". No race of warring Amazons here. Or it may simply be the climate, the relentless cold that eats up all their fighting spirit. They need all their energies to survive the harshness of their surroundings. That is their war.

My only serious criticism is that in the exploration of ambisexualality the inhabitants of Gethen seem to be exclusively male (except for their negative characteristics) and hence an opportunity is lost. In addition there is no mention of same-sex relationships or attraction. We hear and meet Estraven's child but we do not see Estraven as a mother or in any other overtly 'female' role. My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness is 200 pages long and perhaps if LeGuin were to have addressed these issues we would have had a length more approaching Dune or Lord of the Rings, more heavy going and less accessible as a result.

This work survives the test of time and survives it well. I expect that subsequent visits when the pages fade further will also be worth the time spent. In this book LeGuin addresses issues that are timeless and intrinsically relevant to mankind. They were always there in the text and within the author; the change in the triangular relationship has been with the reader. This one is now more able to appreciate the complexities and subtleties woven within.

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