Saturday, June 8, 2013
The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science fiction
The concept of negative space is confusing. Who ever heard of calling nothing something? And yet, in art, the first thing you learn is how to use negative space to define the positive space. In sociology, this often translates in a negative way: we define ourselves by what we're not, creating an "us" and an amorphous "them." But, reflecting back, don't we need "them" to be "us?"
In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin presents us with a conundrum of a people so foreign that they can't possible be us, but still strikingly human. 44 years later, the theme of cultural understanding in the novel still rings eerily true, with the marriage equality battle and more and more international contact every day.
Tucked neatly between several of her other science fiction Hainish novels, the story takes place on a frozen planet called Gethen, or colloquially Winter. The people of Winter are human in every way except one: they are physiologically bisexual, meaning that they are essentially androgynous but hermaphroditic and can change gender during a sexual phase of each month. While this is initially shocking to any reader– our lives are so dictated by our genders, it's nigh impossible to imagine not having one– this is essentially the point. The main protagonist of the novel, Genly Ai, is a human envoy sent to prepare the planet to join a coalition called the Ekumen. He is, however, the only human with a fixed gender on the planet, isolating him so completely that he is forced to reevaluate how he sees other life forms. In his negotiations to prepare the planet to join, he meets with insane kings, curious exiles, double-crossing diplomats and prisoners on the brink of the world.
One thing to note is Le Guin's brilliant use of the first person. Much of the time, when novelists revert to first person to tell a story, it becomes borderline autobiography, or the character at least becomes a direct reflection of the author. Not so here; Genly is a clear, strong voice, distinct from Le Guin's protagonists in her other works (such as the fabulous A Wizard of Earthsea cycle and Rocannon's World). She also departs from Genly to tell the story through the other main protagonist, Estraven, a resident of Winter, and to use "documents" to illustrate the fullness and history of Winter and its people. A full chapter about halfway through the book describes in detail the sexual functions of the people, which is incredibly helpful and interesting to readers.
Duality is the main theme of the story. Besides the obvious (switching between storytellers) we also feel the sharp rift between Genly and the rest of the world he lives in each time he interacts with a Gethenian. Surprisingly enough, Le Guin does not focus overmuch on the sexual frustration Genly feels, but instead on his feeling of isolation amid a society that does not have any definition of male or female. He makes some astute observations about human nature, now stripped of gender expectations, and it gives us a surprisingly raw view of what our nature really is.
The friendship between Genly and Estraven is another buried gem of the book. We meet Estraven in the first few pages of the story, but the relationship between the two develops in a non-linear way that keeps readers guessing up until the end. After all, Estraven could become a woman at any time, but is undeniably a man in others. In some ways, that subverts all elements of friendship that we are familiar with (especially between the sexes) but also solidifies it as a friendship between two souls.
It should be noted that Le Guin was and is one of the few women authors in science fiction. Especially in the 1960s and 70s, that field was particularly domineered by men, and her strong presence there is remarkable in and of itself. Her writing is a little more long-winded than many sci-fi readers might be used to and drags in some places, but it definitely stands on its own as a beautiful work of literature with all the complexity of a space novel.
All in all, Le Guin has created a pithy novel that still cuts to the core of multicultural understanding today, particularly between the gay and straight communities. However, it's larger than that; Genly's struggle to understand a culture both so far and so near is our own, even from block to block. We don't have to travel to other planets to find a dissimilar, misunderstood people.
The Left Hand of Darkness is not available on Kindle, but is available in mass paperback from Amazon for $8.99, or on the Barnes and Noble nook for $9.99. Even if you're not into science fiction, this is a great book to read for your own personal gain, and Le Guin is a great author to get into; she has written a host of books on a variety of subjects, and all possess her deep thought and broad ideas.