1969 was the year Neil Armstrong took his one small step and made the possibility of humans visiting other celestial bodies a reality. It was also the year of publication for an intriguing novel which imagines what could happen if space travel to other inhabited planets was common. How would that world differ from our own? Would it welcome us? And what would it do to the inhabitants of the other planet to learn that they weren’t alone?
The Left Hand of Darkness is narrated primarily by Genly Ai, the Envoy from the Ekumen, a mysterious and benevolent sort of extra-terrestrial United Nations, as he serves the dangerous life-long mission of trying to recruit the planet of Gethen to their alliance. But in the Gethenian kingdom of Karhide, whose society recalls Byzantium or ancient Rome, Genly’s one ally is the ambitious and slippery politician Estraven, and the mad king is resistant to the incomprehensible challenge to his power posed by other planets. “Now tell me why we, one against three thousand, should have anything to do with all these nations of monsters living out in the Void?” he asks. It’s an intriguing question – science fiction often presents the arrival of aliens as a source of either terror or wonder. You don’t often think that, human nature being what it is, many people would just not want to deal with it.
Of course, the Gethenians aren’t human. They have adapted to live on a planet much colder than Earth, and more strikingly, they are gender-neutral; androgynous beings who become either male or female (they don’t have a choice which) in their monthly ‘kemmer’ fertility period. Oh, and incest is considered normal on Gethen, so it’s a world where it’s possible and acceptable to get your brother pregnant. I’ve seen The Left Hand of Darkness referred to as a feminist novel, which is a bit disrupting when I compare it to other feminist novels I’ve read. For a start, all the characters are referred to as ‘he’ because “it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine” – other writers would argue that it’s the other way round, as in Simone de Beauvoir’s contrast between the vague “myth of woman” and the individuality social discourse allows men – so it is, at first, hard to get around the perception that this is a novel only about men and their interactions. It doesn’t help that Genly’s narrative often relies on gendered stereotypes, such as noting “soft supple femininity” as a negative part of Estraven’s character, and that he comes across as such a reasonable character that Le Guin doesn’t seem to have intended these perceptions to be unreliable. Nevertheless, The Left Hand of Darkness can be seen as a feminist novel in that, like Orlando by Virginia Woolf, it challenges perceptions of what gender and sexual orientation mean, forcing the reader to ask how arbitrary our society’s standards of ‘male’ and ‘female’ really are.
Overall, the world of Gethen is an intriguing one. Le Guin lays out her imaginary world in the same cool, detailed prose as in political treatises such as Thomas More’s Utopia. Little moments, such as the mention of the fact that Gethenians travel at 25 miles per hour and “could make their vehicles go faster, but they do not” illustrate how this people’s way of looking at things is very different from, but no better or worse than, our own. Le Guin needs to spend so much time setting up the mechanics of this world that she has less time to devote to character, atmosphere or plot, making it, for me, a book for the brain rather than the soul. But once you’ve got used to the Gethenian world, there are moments to quietly wonder at, such as the development of a bizarre and understated but heartfelt love story, and the striking description of Gethen’s uninhabitable north: “that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent.”