by Alison Ross
I am by no means an avid devourer of science-fiction tomes, but I do indulge in some literary science fiction from time to time. I enjoy, of course, Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin has really evolved into a favored scribe of mine. Her work would best be termed "cerebral fantasy" from my point of view. I have not sampled the entirety of Le Guin's oeuvre, to be sure, but I do consider her Lathe of Heaven a masterwork of the sci-fi/fantasy genres.
And I would rank Left Hand of Darkness as another similar masterwork, even as it is denser and more convoluted than Lathe of Heaven. But of course, that is what makes Left Hand of Darkness such an intriguing read - that, and its reliance on sociopolitical themes and subversion of sexual stereotypes.
The characters in Left Hand are hermaphroditic, you see, and they live on a planet called Winter (Gethen). Winter's forbidding freeze renders belligerent conflict nearly implausible. But when a representative from the Galactic Federation of Worlds, Ekumen, visits, he learns that Winter is on the verge of civil war.
Genly Ai, the representative, has come to Winter in order to entice the leaders to bring the planet into the federation fold. Initially the leaders are fiercely reluctant, but through many adventures and mishaps, which permit him to ascertain Gethen's cultural quirks, Ai is able to convince them to join.
The most arresting aspect of the tale is the way that Le Guin treats the motifs of sexuality and gender. As mentioned, the characters (with the exception of Genly Ai), are mostly hermaphroditic, and then during their two-day sexual phase (kemmer), they assume either the male or female role, depending on their partner's gender proclivities.
Le Guin's focus on these gender-benders and their ingrained sexual schedule of kemmer give us a fascinating window into what a less orthodoxly genderized culture might be like. There is no sexual hierarchy power-struggle since the people androgynously inhabit both male and female traits.
Furthermore, the sexual impulse is not the driving force for the characters' activities. Terrestial humans like ourselves could be considered to be "in kemmer" constantly, which can be tantamount to good and bad both. Rigid repression of the sexual drive and promiscuous indulgence of it can be equally detrimental, and so humans seek to strike a balance. When that equilibrium is not attained, humans can lash out in unhealthy ways. Many societal ills can likely be traced to these polarities of sexual expression.
So, Le Guin seems to be saying, it's likely healthier if we simply merge the genders and genetically impose some sort of sexual structure so as to assuage sexually-compelled tensions and conflicts. That way, the gender energies still exist but in hybrid form, and sex retains a pleasure-aspect but is sans its danger-dimension.
There is a mystical facet to Left Hand as well, a sort of oracle that nonetheless turns the Greek version on its head. The Foretellers in Karhide (the main nation of Gethen) consider questions asked to them, but their sometimes cryptic answers are designed to manifest the salience of posing the precise inquiry.
By the end of the story, Genly Ai has become fully acclimated to the harsh weather and terrain of Gethen, as well as to the verbal and psychological idiosyncrasies of its inhabitants. Of course, he had to endure a bit of baptism by fire first. However, his trials and tribulations bear fruit, since the leaders of Winter agree to join Ekumen, which promises to be a mutually profitable undertaking.
I don’t pretend to fully discern all of the rich nuances of Le Guin’s sly allegory about the politics of sex and social interactions, but the Left Hand of Darkness is a dynamic read nonetheless. Since the left hand of darkness is light, I would say the story illuminates the subtle complexities of our own world in unfathomable, fascinating ways.