I would like to start with a quote – one of many great quotes from this novel.
“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.”
The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien country whose inhabitants can choose -and change – their gender. Ai is an ambassador to the planet Gethen; his task is to convince its leaders to join the interplanetary union, called Ekumen. Ai’s mission is important but also a dangerous and a difficult one. The inhabitants of Gethen differ from other humanoid races in two aspects: they have adapted well to tolerate the Ice Age climate of their world, and they are ambisexual.
While the adaptation to the Ice Age conditions seems to be completely normal, the ambisexuality is most certainly not. Overall it means that for the majority of lunar cycle all the inhabitants are essentially neuter, and for several days they enter a sexual phase, kemmer, during which they attain either male or female characteristics and become capable of sex. The same person can be a mother and a father. Ai’s goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion into a growing intergalactic civilization. In order to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. The fact that he is perceived by his hosts as a sexual deviant, somebody stuck permanently in kemmer, doesn’t help either.
The question that permeates Le Guin’s 1969 sensational for its time novel about the ambisexual society is what remains once the male and the female labels are stripped away? What is underneath the labels – is it simply humanity or something more? Would there be more justice if we were able to go beyond the matters of sex and just appreciate people’s character?
Some aspects of that brilliantly written, leisurely-paced, completely cerebral but also intriguing sci-fi classic story swept me off my feet. Genly Ai, the protagonist , for a while just cannot move past the ambisexuality aspect. His inability to do so reflected well my own feelings because, let’s face it, it would be hard to imagine yourself the society without gender.
“What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.”
Therem Harth Estraven, in my opinion, was the true hero of this story. Estraven, one of the few in Winter, sees the promise that the union with Ekumen offers his world. In his attempts to help Ai, he is shunned and degraded, viewed as a shifty traitor. The irony is that it takes a long time and many trials and tribulations for Ai to recognize Estraven for what and who he is – just human and his closest ally. Ai cannot move past his lack of comfort and the prejudice almost to the very end.
“It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.”
Now let me tell you what didn’t work for me so well. Sometimes I wished that the contemplations of Ai had delved a bit deeper, had been a bit more shocking, a bit more insightful, that the man were more courageous, more prone to experiment. However Ai as the main lead and the narrator was more often than not simply stolid – perhaps too afraid to endanger his mission. Sometimes it was simply annoying how thick-headed he was, how he failed to find solutions, but I sympathized in the fact that the solutions he sought were never easy to find, and that the central theme of the book was that it didn’t matter if we found answers, because we so rarely ask the right questions, anyways.
The heart of the sci-fi genre is an introspective exploration of the nature of reality and here Le Guin somehow didn’t manage to impress me. The pseudo-scientific elements of her novel often felt superfluous, especially keeping in mind the fact that it was a character-driven story. The implications of advanced means of transport, communication and telepathy would be far more interesting if there was more emphasis on their impact on society at large. Le Guin would sometimes bring in such notions, but they were always aborted too early, and, overall, added too little to the story.
The exploration of gender, which was truly great, alien and speculative, felt also somewhat plodding and small. I felt that way maybe because the author was constantly telling, not showing things. For example I would love to see a steamy love affair between the aliens, resulting in their marriage of sorts. I would also like to see Ai more emotionally involved with one of them or even several of them. After all, there’s an IQ test result and there is emotional intelligence, right?
It is a great book which ages well. I am sure it will be able to inspire generations to come – even with its flaws and a strange lack of feelings. I do hope somebody will adapt it for the screen, letting a brave, visionary director take care of it. It is certainly worth it.