- The Left Hand of Darkness
- By Ursula K. Le Guin
- Ace Books
- $6.99/$8.99 Canada
- Paperback, Jan. 1991
- First Published 1969
- ISBN 0-441-47812-3
Genly Ai is alone. His job is to introduce the icy planet of Gethen into the Ekumen, a loose consortium of 80 worlds that trade in knowledge as well as goods. He is the Ekumen's first open envoy, and the first envoy always goes alone. He offers Gethen a single voice describing the friends to be had among the stars, and he travels among the local people, learning what hidden observers cannot.
The Gethenians are genderless when not in their monthly period of heat (at which point they can become either sex); they consider Ai's masculinity a perverse aberration. Their opaque system of honor, protocol and standing, called shifgrethor, increases Ai's sense of isolation. When his lone ally in the land of Karhide, the prime minister Estraven, first withdraws support and then is suddenly banished, Ai's mission seems to die before his eyes.
Nonetheless, Ai is patient. He travels Karhide, spending time among mystics who use their ability to divine the future to teach the power of the Unknown. He then applies to enter Karhide's rival nation, Orgoreyn, a brooding, repressive oligarchy. There his initial, promising inroads descend into a rapidly deteriorating morass of intrigue and poisonous politics, until one morning Ai wakes aboard a fetid land-ship bound for a labor camp, no longer the celebrated Envoy from the stars.
Subjected to interrogations under drugs not meant for his alien physiology, Ai is on the brink of death when he is rescued by the exile, Estraven. Ai's misunderstanding of shifgrethor had masked Estraven's continued loyalty to his cause. Exhausted and proscribed amid the desolation of this world's ultima Thule, their only chance is the sense of honor of Karhide's king -- but first they must get to Karhide, 80 days away across the unforgiving glaciers of the Gobrin Ice.
Unique Characters, Forbidding World
The first striking thing about The Left Hand of Darkness -- the first of many -- is its introductory essay, an aggressive defense of science fiction as description, not prediction, with metaphors such as alien societies used to describe our own world. This bald reminder of author Ursula K. Le Guin's calling might have stripped the mystique from the following tale, leaving little more than a tract. But The Left Hand of Darkness is told by Genly Ai; in it Ai, not Le Guin, reaches out to readers with his own story of hardship and friendship, imparting in writing what he cannot quite say in words.
The Left Hand is also a beguiling read quite apart from its layers and meanings. Le Guin's sometimes mischievous narrative tone is crisp and fresh. Ai and Estraven are richly drawn, complex, unpredictable, steadfast, and unique. Gethen itself is a fascinating world, with distinct, carefully developed cultures sharing in common an outlook born out of their frozen climate and their androgyne nature. Of particular interest are the Foretellers, whose perplexing emphasis on the importance of ignorance -- the philosophical outgrowth of their ability to see the future -- nicely complements Ai's growing understanding of the interdependency of shadow and light. The narrative is intercut with revealing stories from the legends and myths of Gethen: some feature Foretellers, others doomed lovers or ancient heroes.
The fact that The Left Hand won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards is nicely apposite in light of the subtext of dualism. But chiefly these twin awards serve to underline the quality of the work. The adventures of Ai and Estraven make for splendid character study and provocative speculation, but they also provide a good story well told.
Ai was preceded on Gethen (also called Winter) by observers, whose reports are transcribed. At one point, writing of gender roles, an observer says: "On Winter they do not exist. One is respected and judged as a human being. It is an appalling experience." At first I laughed this jarring comment off as a 1960s relic, but soon I realized that at first even the most enlightened human would be rudderless in an androgyne society.