The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Isaac Yuen
“Estraven stood there in harness beside me looking at that magnificent and unspeakable desolation. ‘I am 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.” (p 220)
In a foreword, Le Guin describes The Left Hand of Darkness beginning life as a thought experiment, a story that grew out of a series of “what ifs”. One of those hypotheticals concerned place: What if a world was in the midst of an ice age? The result: Gethen, in all its frozen splendour. Rereading the novel, I was struck by the bleak beauty of this fictional planet, brought all the more into focus during the second half of the story as the main characters embarked on their bitter winter journey across the Gobrin ice.
Having a better appreciation for prose and imagery now than I did when I first read the book, I was finally able to perceive this world as Ai and Estraven experienced it, journeying along in spirit as they traversed through a “deep cold porridge of rain-sodden snow”, trekked past a volcano with “worms of fire crawl down its black sides”, and sledged over a glacier that resembled “an abruptly frozen, storm-raised sea”. The raw fury of nature is on display on Gethen.
“But the ice did not care how hard we worked. Why should it? Proportion is kept.” (p 257)
In a book filled with unforgettable quotes, Ai’s realization as he struggles across the ice stands is seared into my memory. Bordering on poetry, these three short statements help me keep my own cares and concerns in perspective, remind me of humanity’s collective insignificance in the face of nature’s vast indifference. For me, the passage serves as a perennial source for both humility and awe.
Along the way, Le Guin inserts metaphors from her fictional Gethenian myths into her character’s accounts of their adventure. In those instances, I see the landscape come alive, transforming into a being that pants smoke from fiery mouths, belches soot and stink from its depths, uses ice to scrape raw earthen bones, and yells hate in a blizzard’s tongue. Le Guin, like her creation Estraven, knows how to spin a good yarn:
“Our hosts got Estraven to tell them the whole tale of our crossing of the Ice. He told it as only a person of an oral-literature tradition can tell a story, so that it became a saga, full of traditional locutions and even episodes, yet exact and vivid, from the sulphurous fire and dark of the pass between Drumner and Dremegole to the screaming gusts from mountain-gaps that swept the Bay of Guthen; with comic interludes, such as his fall into the crevasse, and mystical ones, when he spoke of the sounds and silences of the Ice, of the shadowless weather, of the night’s darkness.” (p 276)
In a talk hosted by Orion magazine, author Rebecca Solnit spoke of the power of blending nature writing with anthropology, stating that to truly understand a place requires an understanding of a people’s connection to that place. The daughter of renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, Le Guin grasped this more than most. Her treatment of Gethen as both setting and character, as an agent that shapes people and is in turn given meaning, infuses her world with a vivid and vital quality. As a result, Ai and Estraven’s entirely fictional expedition stands as one of my favourite pieces of nature, travel, and mythic writing, and a gold standard I wish to strive for in my writing practice.
The ambisexual nature of Gethenians has profound effects on their outlook and behaviour. In a world inhabited by potentials that can become either men or women with every 26 day cycle, humanity is not separated into two hard halves. With no inclination towards dividing the world into strong and weak, dominant and submissive, active and passive, exploitation on the individual, societal, and environmental level seems to be drastically lessened.
Another fascinating outcome is that war is unknown in Gethenian society. There are assassinations, blood feuds, and skirmishes, but no large-scale conflicts. Yet Gethen is by no means a utopia. Although diminished, exploitation is not entirely eliminated. Power relationships are still prominent on this warless world: Politicians still jockey for prestige in Karhide, while the Orgota state has no qualms about committing atrocities on its own people for the sake of the greater good.
By creating a planet of androgynes and exploring its sociological ramifications, Le Guin managed to create a race as alien as any imagined in science fiction. An observer from the Ekumen summarizes this vast difference in another one of my favourite passages:
“A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.” (p 95)
I always get a kick out of that last line. The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking piece of work when it used the science-fiction genre to ask these questions, but they are no less relevant today as gender roles continue to shift in societies across the world. What is the connection between one’s gender and one’s humanity? Do qualities that make for good human beings have anything to do with gender? Can we separate learned differences from the innate ones? Can we see and treat people not only as men or women, but also as human beings?
Le Guin is wise not to attribute these enormous differences solely on physiology; her characters speculate that the harsh environment also plays a major factor in shaping Gethenian society and outlook:
“And in the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself.” (p 96)
With much of their energies focused on surviving on a marginal world, the Gethenians have developed slowly, having never gone through an industrial revolution, not achieving “in thirty centuries what Terra once achieved in thirty decades” (p 99). Yet their slowness and caution brings certain advantages. Gethenians have found ways to live within their world’s carrying capacity. Their global population has been stable for over a millennia. They use centuries-old sustainable stewardship practices to manage their forests. Much of the technologies featured throughout the story emphasize economy, durability, and function: A portable stove/heater/lamp that could run for fourteen months straight; sledge runners coated with polymers that cut drag resistance to nothing; architecture designed for optimal function in deep snow.
With little room for experimentation living on an unforgiving world, Gethenians have adopted a worldview that focuses less on progress, and more on presence. As a world obsessed with the former, we would fare well to devote more attention to the latter.
The Left Hand of Darkness is told through a series of documents, with the bulk of the tale consisting of Ai’s report to the Ekumen and Estraven’s journal entries to her people. Interspersed between these two main tellings are shorter, self-contained stories, ranging from ethnological musings from the first Ekumen observers to Karhidish tales and legends. There’s even an Orgota creation myth thrown into the mix.
This narrative structure makes for tricky first readings. I remembered being confused at the insertion of seemingly random tales, which on the surface seem to have little to do with the main plot. But with a repeat reading, I saw how each perspective added another layer to the overall story, whether it be providing context to an alien world, setting up recurring themes, or foreshadowing in subtle fashion what is to come. For example, an Ekumenical report speculates on how Gethen and its people came to be. An ancient Karhidish story of a feud between two domains alludes to Estraven’s own past and her unspoken secret. These interludes are a clever way to add depth and complexity to the world and its characters.
“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.” (p 1-2)
One of the (many) things I love about The Left Hand of Darkness is its acknowledgement of diversity in viewpoints. The multiple narratives help to remind me that a range of perspectives are often necessary to convey a story in its entirety. From lore to report to hearth tale, each is treated as a legitimate way of seeing the world and is accepted as a crucial piece to a larger, more meaningful truth. By seeing the same events occur through the eyes of Ai and Estraven, the story also illustrates how difficult it can be to communicate with another across gender, culture, and worldview, and how easily motivations and intentions can be misconstrued. It helps cultivate empathy and understanding, encourages me not to so quickly criticize or dismiss others, and to better listen to others who may have more in common with me than I initially believe.
“Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.” (p 259)
For me, connection and change are the central themes in The Left Hand of Darkness, which at its heart is a story of two exiles coming together to find companionship. Their story has a rocky beginning: Ai mistrusts and misjudges Estraven’s motives, while Estraven is frustrated at Ai’s ignorance. Over the first half of the novel, misunderstandings pile up between the two, despite the fact that they both in reality want the same thing: An alliance between Gethen and the Ekumen.
But after Estraven rescues Ai from Pulefen Farm and they embark on a journey across the ice, they learn, as Estraven muses, “to pull together”. Much of this work is internal, revolving around Ai realizing and overcoming his own prejudices towards Estraven, who was the only Gethenian who was receptive to Ai’s mission when he first arrived:
“For [Estraven] was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust and friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.” (p 248)
As Ai comes to accept Estraven as she is, he becomes less absorbed, more aware of his actions on his companion, and a wiser and more appreciative person. His companionship with Estraven profoundly changes him and how he perceives the alien world that is now his home. For me, Ai’s growth highlights the notion that one’s own wholeness of being can arise from a relationship in which both parties strive to accept one another. At first, this seems to be a contradiction: How can one discover oneself through another?
The Left Hand of Darkness suggests that it is through love, defined not as physical intimacy or shared affinities, but rather as the risky act taken to accept another wholly into our being, that we come to know ourselves. To willingly embark on the journey to change from the isolating and defensive mindset of “Self and Other” to the receptive and vulnerable mindset of “I and Thou” is a vital step towards becoming a person who is at ease with oneself. In this way and form, love is not only a powerful tool for connection, but also for self-knowledge and growth.
Le Guin carries this definition even further in the novel, suggesting that this love on the personal level, between individuals, must be the foundation for any lasting societal, international, or universal relations. Idealistic? Definitely. But this is a story of “what ifs”, and the world as it is can probably use such a dose of optimism.
The Left Hand of Darkness, through the beauty of its prose, the craftsmanship of its narrative, the complexities of its world and characters, and the enduring relevance of its ideas, remains a masterwork almost a half century after its publication. It has grown over time into one of my favourite novels. I urge those who have not read it to give it a try, to be patient and open with it, and those who have read it to return to the world of Gethen and rediscover a gem of an Ekostory.
This review originally appeared on Ekostories.
For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.