The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favorite science fiction novels and definitely my favorite by Le Guin. This was my third time reading it. This book won the Hugo & Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 1970. This new edition has an excellent afterword by Charlie Jane Anders.
Synopsis: A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. 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 strange, intriguing culture 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. (from the description in the library catalog)
Plot: Definitely a slow burn, but exciting once it gets going, and very dramatic in the second half.
Setting: Winter, aka Gethen, is a planet in an ice age is one of my favorite settings in science fiction and definitely my favorite from Le Guin. I love the mythology and religions she created for it and the descriptions. This book takes its time establishing the world in which it takes place, and Le Guin later wrote two short stories in this setting: “Winter’s King” and “Coming of Age in Karhide.” They are both in the Library of America edition of Le Guin’s writings: Hainish Novels & Stories, Vol. 1: Rocannon’s World / Planet of Exile / City of Illusions / The Left Hand of Darkness / The Dispossessed / Stories.
Characters: Genly Ai is the ambassador from the intergalactic civilization known as the Ekumen, a union of planets designed to increase communication and knowledge throughout the known universe. He has been sent alone to convince Gethen to join the Ekumen, and when the book opens he is staying in Ehrenrang, the capital city of Karhide, a country on Gethen. Genly comes across (and probably is intended to come across) as a bit reactionary and shortsighted with respect to the gender issues raised in the book. If you have read it, you know what I mean, but I shouldn’t give too much away. The prime minister of Karhide, Estraven, is the second narrator. Estraven has haunted me since I first read the book. He is one of my favorite fictional characters: an inspiring but flawed person in difficult circumstances and more proactive than LeGuin’s characters usually are.
Theme: besides the obvious gender issues, it also touches on themes of patriotism and mysticism.
Style: Lyrical and endlessly quotable! Some of my favorite quotes:
“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story.”
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
“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 a 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.”
“Season is not a hemispheric effect but a global one, a result of an ellipsoid orbit. At the far and slow-moving end f the orbit, approaching and departing from aphelion, there is just enough loss of solar radiation t disturb the already uneasy weather patterns, chill down what is cold already, and turn the wet gray summer int white violent winter. Dryer than the rest of the year, winter might be pleasanter if it were not for the cold. The sun, when you see it, shines high; there is no slow bleeding away of light int the darkness, as on the polar slopes of Earth where cold & night come on together. Gethen has a bright winter, bitter, terrible, and bright.”
“Smoke painted from fiery mouths that opened out of the ice. Estraven stood there in harness beside me looking at that magnificent and unspeakable desolation. “I’m glad I have lived to see this,” he said. I felt as he did. It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”