David's Reviews > The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Nov 07, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: science-fiction, book-club, re-read

The book began with an author's introduction in which Le Guin tells us science fiction stories are not predictive of the future, but are written as metaphors for the past or present. This haunted me as I read the book, since I like to think of science fiction (or at least the more worthy works of the genre) as exploration of possibilities. (I won't disagree that many / most authors are motivated by delving into their own past or present. That's just not what makes SF special.)

On the surface, The Left Hand of Darkness is a story about a lone envoy from a brotherhood of human worlds trying to begin the process of connecting to another world. It seems safe to say that at least in the case of this book, the authro had some metaphors in mind - much more time is spent on some parts of the story than is needed to develop the interstellar envoy idea. I will discuss the non-metaphor aspect of the story.

This world has humanoids who were presumably the descendants of a Hainish colony left hundreds of thousands of years ago. They are now at an industrial age level of development. The planet has been experiencing an ice age for tens of thousands of years, which plays a large role in their lifestyle. The inhabitants vary somewhat in size and color from the average from other human worlds, but their major distinction is not being divided into male and female. Instead, individuals are "ambisexual" - being neither definitively male nor female most of the time. For a few days each month, their hormones put them in a sexual activity period. During this time, two people may be drawn to have sex together, and while their sexual arousal increases, one will begin to take on the characteristics of male or female, after which the other will take on the characteristics of the other gender. These premises do give food for thought on various non-metaphoric aspects as well as any metaphors.

The envoy originally lands in one nation which is a sort of constitutional monarchy. During his stay there, the envoy's mission is limited by doubts about whether he really came from another planet. The fact that the envoy is always male (a "pervert" by local standards) does not help. The powers-that-be are reluctant to risk their reputations on the possibility that he is not truly an interstellar envoy - or at least cannot prove that he is.

He travels the countryside and encounters quasi-religious belief systems. Eventually, he visits another nation. There, he is initially welcomed by a minority faction in the leadership of a Soviet Union-like society. Again, the question of proof of who he really is important to the leaders. During this time, he discloses that there is a starship in their star system which can be brought down, but that standard procedure is that a certain level of agreement is supposed to be reached before the ship can be asked to land. The minority faction can't get such an agreement before the ship lands (proving the envoy's story.) The dominant faction ends up sending the envoy off to a labor camp.

Much of the rest of the story is about an exiled official from the first nation who helps the envoy escape from the labor camp and travel together for three months over the vast ice age glaciers. There's considerable development of understanding, connection and trust between the two during this trip. We see how differences in social norms have made understanding difficult.

Also here, must be much of Le Guin's under-the-surface story. During this trip, we're introduced to the origin of the title of the book - a saying on this world, "Light is the left hand of darkness." This and other elements of the story suggest a yin and yang view of things.

A number of elements give us opportunities to consider what possibilities could lie ahead. We can think about ice age civilizations, ambisexuality and what is perceived as perversion, interstellar envoys (how they migh operate and what obstacles they may face), and other matters. And I'm willing to explore those whether or not that's what the author had in mind.
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