The novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin has started me on a quest. I’ve reignited in my reading interest. More specifically, reading science fiction. I’m letting the Hugo and Nebula awards help me compose my reading list. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin won the 1970 Hugo and 1969 Nebula awards for best novel.
I obviously hate trees because I’m buying used copies of the books, rather than reading them on my kindle or other ebook format. I’ve found a convenient venue to locate used books at bookfinder.com.
The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from Ekumen, Genly Ai. Ekumen is a federation of planets connected by near light-speed starships. However, relativity’s time dilation affects travel and trade. Ekumen has developed a long-term perspective because travelers will often return home decades after they left on a mission.
The people living on the aptly named planet Winter (also known as Gethen) are unique because of their fluid gender. Every person can bear children as well as father them. However, most of the time the individuals are genderless. The effects of this on their culture is complex. On one hand, sexuality and nudity become much less sensitive a topic. Raising children is a more cooperative enterprise with more than the parents responsible. People are hospitable and welcome strangers. It’s challenging to know how to look at them from this more-or-less solid-gendered world. It’s easy for Ai to consider everyone a “he.” When he notices feminine qualities in individuals, he finds it disorienting.
The story describes three different nations. One, Karhide, is hierarchical and like a large confusing family. It is hierarchical and formal. The second, Orgoreyn, is bureaucratic. Its citizens deal with interminable paperwork and passport documents when they travel. However, the bureaucratic culture has work for everyone. The more feudal Karhidish society has strong bonds of mutual aid and generosity. The third culture, the Handarata, is mystical and has a subtle mythology. It is not explored as deeply as the others but seems very Zen-like with contradiction and paradox essential attitudes.
The language of the novel is very clear and descriptive. During a journey over a large glacier, the feelings of fatigue and the difficulty dealing with the murderous cold was striking. At one point, the novel made me actually jump with surprise and emotion. The book’s early chapters do not provide a linear story. Alternating chapters include information from Gethenian mythology and storytelling. This is helps the novel be a little more anthropological so that I had get a better feel for the world.
The Left Hand of Darkness reveals that my native assumptions about gender are not the only way to see things. The Hainish people share strong bonds. There are intrigues and power struggles that Ai has to navigate through. The title is misleading because the book isn’t about a struggle between darkness and light. Instead, it is a testament to endurance and the ability of people to form bonds of trust and honor.