Thoughts: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

In the normal order of things, it would take me about three years to get around to this, after Ursula K. Le Guin left us in January, but I bumped her up to the top of the list because a) she is a legend and b) a few of us wanted to read The Left Hand of Darkness and discuss it together. Which we haven’t done yet, but oh well, here come my thoughts!

I found it a little hard to get into The Left Hand of Darkness, but that’s partly because I’d just finished Never Let Me Go, and I was still a little ball of emotional pulp, not quite ready to trust again. But by the second chapter I was fully present in icy Gethen, in all its culture shock and politics.

The premise is simple – a man has been sent to a distant planet to tell the others of space travel and convince them to join the interplanetary alliance of humanity.

Easy, right?

Our ambassador, Genly, himself is perfectly aware of all the ways his job can go. Some planets go through several ambassadors before accepting the offer. He sees himself as a part of a much larger whole, and this mindset colours his experiences on the planet of Gethen. His job is to immerse himself in Gethenian culture, to be a hand reaching out, and though he feels homesickness and sometimes perhaps resentment, he remains devoted to his duty and his role.

I really liked the way Le Guin set up the thought and method behind initiating contact with other planets, which is calculated to be unthreatening and careful in the face of the huge power imbalance between an interplanetary alliance between technologically advanced cultures and a planet which hasn’t yet attained off-world travel. It felt like a deliberate response to Earth colonialism and “discovery” events, and I think it worked really well. It felt scrupulously fair. One is a visitor but two is an invasion.

Similarly, I liked the idea that our Earth wasn’t the first to initiate the interplanetary alliance – Genly is from there and says as much. Just the idea that one day we might be going about our business and a human from another planet might show up and ask if we want to be part of something bigger is so… tantalising?

Interspersed throughout the story are little sort of interludes, a creation myth, a folk legend, current news (presented in reverse chronological order in the story). I wasn’t sure how I felt about them at first (besides my default love of fantasy lore) but I started to see the little nuances they brought out of the story, not quite parallels, but a deeper understanding of the world. The folk tale is of a man who was known for betraying his family while doing the right thing, and it’s mentioned at the end that his name has survived in the area where he lived. So when we find out that one of the characters bears that name, we understand something of the significance of it, and that again colours how we see that character’s actions throughout the story – he’s considered a traitor for what you could call similar reasons.

Another effect of this reverse chronology is that I felt like I was reaching further into the clear white heart of Gethen, from the detailed shallow current events through to archetypes and famous stories of universal values, right back to the simplicity of creation. And at the same time in the main story, our protagonists are journeying from civilisation into the very wildest part of the continent, which, being all snow, is pure white and cold, blank and primal.

And yes, of course there’s the gender thing. Think of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice as a distant descendant of The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps, though unlike the purely linguistic monogender of the Imperial Radch, the humans of Gethen are truly ambisexual. Le Guin chooses the masculine pronoun to apply across the board as opposed to Leckie’s feminine, and much like when I was reading Ancillary Justice, I found the pronoun choice to affect my reading of the characters. Interestingly, because Genly is an outsider to this culture, he remarks upon this exact thing himself, how the language influences his thoughts, how he is simply unable to conceive of the both-ness of the Gethenians (as, to be honest, I was, because the idea of it is so far out of my experience).

I don’t want to just describe the whole story or anything, because you should read it for yourself. I don’t even want to say too much about the specific story things I enjoyed, because I want you to be able to enjoy them for yourself. The Left Hand of Darkness has stayed with me, so much that the recent cold snap has taken my mind right back to Gethen, to when I pulled a sledge across the Gobrin ice sheet with Estraven and Genly. It was only -7 here, though, so we can conclude that I would definitely just shrivel up and die on Gethen.

I could talk forever about the variation in the cultures of Gethen (a nice touch in a genre that tends towards planet-wide monocultures) and the layers of formality and enigmatic honour systems and telepathy, but I’ll leave that to you to discover.

In Le Guin’s note at the beginning of the book, she addresses various criticisms the book received after publication, and regrets that she didn’t go further with her radical trailblazing. A noble sentiment, and one that I aspire to share (always try to do more, more, more) but I hope she was still proud of all the great things she did achieve in The Left Hand of Darkness.

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