I wrote earlier about how much I liked Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I’d like to try to explain why a little further. I’m generally not a science fiction reader, and that may not change, but I did enjoy this book enough to be open to other recommendations, or perhaps to reading other Ursula Le Guin books (thoughts, anyone??).
Ultimately what did it for me is the personal relationship the novel describes. I’ll always go for the social and personal dynamics in a novel, rather than for its other attractions — in this case, the political dimension Le Guin develops. I can’t really describe the relationship that develops between the two main characters, Genly Ai, the alien visitor on the planet Gethen, and Estraven, a Gethenian political leader, because it would give too much of the story away. But the novel opens with an encounter between these two, and as they meet and interact throughout the novel, their ideas and feelings about each other change in dramatic and satisfying ways. It’s through these two that Le Guin explores most deeply what it’s like to confront “otherness” in someone else and to try and understand that person, in spite of cultural obstacles. There is much they say to each other that the other misinterprets, and it’s a pleasure to watch them realize their mistakes and try to overcome them.
But the political element of the novel is fascinating too; the two countries on the planet Gethen that we hear about, Karhide and Orgoreyn, are going through a transformation, within themselves and in relation to each other. Karhide has modernized itself in many ways but has not yet developed some of the problems our modernized countries on earth experience, such as war or the consequences of the industrial revolution. Its citizens are not nationalistic in their thinking. And yet these things are changing; Karhide finds itself under new leadership that seeks to foster fear and hatred of other peoples and countries in order to consolidate power. Orgoreyn is a much harsher place; it has a system of surveillance and a powerful government reminiscent of fascist states here on earth. Tensions between these two countries are rising.
Into this political situation comes Genly Ai, a representative from the Ekumen, an alliance of planets dedicated to furthering, as Genly puts it:
Material profit. Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life. The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God. Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.
The members of the Ekumen have left behind many of the problems Karhide and Orgoreyn are only now beginning to face; they do not understand patriotism or nationalism and do not participate in war. The story, then, is about how well Genly fares in his quest to get the countries of Gethen to join the enlightened Ekumen, which can potentially change the course of their development.
So there’s all this going on, which is a pleasure to read, and there’s also an adventure tale of a trek across glaciers that’s incredibly exciting. And there are also sections interspersed between many of the chapters that tell of Gethenian myths, legends, and historical events so you get a sense of the history and culture of the people who inhabit Gethen. And there are the fascinating sex practices and gender dynamics that are so different from those on earth, which I wrote about here.
It took me a little while to get fully involved in the story — I supposed I’m not used to learning about a brand new world as one usually must when reading science fiction — but once I got a little ways into it, I was hooked and didn’t want it to end.
5 responses to “The Left Hand of Darkness”
Since you enjoyed the political intricacies in this one, may I recommend, also by LeGuin, The Dispossesed? Two planets that don’t take to each, one a utopia, the other one peopled with anarchists. An ambassador from the anarchist planet goes to the utopian planet. Politics galore, culture clash, and all kinds of “otherness” goodness, or badness depending on your point of view. Glad you enjoyed Left Hand of Darkness!
I’ll have to check this out. It sounds intriguing. I think part of why I don’t pick up sci fi books is its ‘foreignness’–usually a whole other world is created, and I think I tend to like what is already familiar–but it is always good to read outside your comfort zone, too. It sounds like there is lots going on in this book!
Yes, thank you Stefanie! I would like to read more LeGuin, so I’m happy to know where to turn to.
Danielle — I know what you mean about foreignness; I’ve been thinking that picking up ANY book requires getting used to foreignness — you have to learn the world of the author — but it’s more complicated when it’s literally another world. I found things that are familiar — the relationship stuff — within the strangeness, which is why I liked it, I think.
I’d highly recommend both The Dispossessed and The Wizard of Earthsea (I have one friend who thinks the latter is the only really good thing she wrote, but I disagree). I’m not a big sci fi reader, either, but I LOVE LeGuin.
Emily — you’ll be happy to know I just mooched a copy of The Dispossessed — thanks for the recommendation!