I just today finished this wonderful piece of science fiction. Ursula Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction classic and an excellent piece of writing. Although it’s pace was much slower than what I’m used to, I enjoyed it very much.
It tells the story of a man named Genly Ai, who is an envoy from the Ekumen, a sort of confederation of planets, to an independent world known as Winter. His mission is to convince the people of this world to join the Ekumen in alliance. Because the Ekumen doesn’t want to make mistakes in reaching out to new worlds, he was sent alone and unarmed, the first man from another world to visit this planet.
He finds a very strange race of human beings on this planet. Apparently, several thousand years ago, the planet was used as a sort of laboratory where experiments were performed on human sexuality. The result was a colony of people who are neither male nor female, but instead have a periodic sexual cycle, where for one or two days every lunar month, they come into “kemmer” and develop working sexual organs–sometimes male, sometimes female. After the outside worlds lost interest in the experiment, they left the colony to itself, and over thousands of years of isolation it developed into its own complex civilization.
The planet Winter is in a deep ice age, and everything in the Gethanian’s culture (that’s the name of the people of this world) revolves around both their peculiar reproductive biology and the severe weather in which they live. Their cities are designed for winters that drop dozens of feet of snow, and their culture is very hospitable and welcoming of strangers. The people are generally very passive; they never drive their vehicles faster than 10 or 15 miles per hour, people live in the same villages and towns where they were born without really caring much for the outside world, and scientific innovation progresses at a very slow pace. There are, however, two major countries on this world, and as Genly Ai starts his mission, the leaders of these countries are preparing for war.
It is a tale of a strange, exotic world, with a very deep mystical and religious structure, and many interesting ramifications from the unique biology of its people. It is also a tale of political intrigue and xenophobia. The plot is not all that complicated, but there are a couple of interesting twists. However, towards the beginning, Genly visits a hermitic sect of religious sages who have the ability to foretell the future, and learns how the story will basically end, so you really don’t have to do a lot of guessing.
That ends up to be a good thing, though, because it keeps you from thinking too much about the plot so that you’re free to focus on the beautiful way that LeGuin tells the story. Her descriptions are wonderful, and paint a very beautiful picture of the world and its culture. The focus of the book is not so much on the alien technology, or the history of the Ekumen or Winter, or even on Genly as a character, but on the culture of the Gethenians and how Genly interacts with them. In the end, he comes to feel closer to the alien culture than his own.
The concept of the Gethenian sexual cycle is fascinating, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of LeGuin’s conclusions. The way she describes it, it’s not obscene at all; in fact, she does a remarkably excellent job discussing sexuality in her work. Other pieces of Science Fiction tend to use sex and sexuality as a way to thrill or entertain the reader (or, failing that, the writer), and usually it ends up being puerile and shallow. But LeGuin approaches it entirely from a cultural perspective, to answer “what would a culture of people with this peculiar biological cycle look and feel like?” I found it mostly believable, though I disagreed with the idea that without a constant libido, mankind would not be very aggressive or innovative. However, that didn’t really take away much from reading her book.
I’d rate this book an eight out of ten. I loved the journeys that Genly went on, especially towards the end when he and one of the aliens traveled together across the frozen waste to escape to safety. The descriptions were wonderful and beautiful, and I could feel like I was making the journey myself. There isn’t a lot of action in this story, but it makes up for it in depth and in the very thorough conceptualization of this wonderfully alien culture.