Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

I was inspired to read this novel when I heard BBC Radio 4 was going to be broadcasting a radio drama adaptation of it this spring, so I figured it must be a good book, even though I had never heard of it.  I quickly checked to see if my library had a copy, and they did.

This book is part of the "Hainish cycle" written by Le Guin, a series of loosely connected science fiction novels that can be read alone, and which detail a distant future in which humans from various planets attempt to set up an interstellar confederacy.

In "The Left Hand of Darkness", we follow an envoy sent by this confederacy to the planet Gethen (or Winter, a planet where it is bitterly cold and snows most of the year) whose mission is to peacefully convince the leaders of the planet to join the confederacy, for purposes of trade and communication.  At the beginning of the novel, the envoy, Genly Ai, has been on Gethen for some time, and has had time to become acquainted with the way of life in one of the planet's countries, Karhide.  He has struck up an uneasy alliance with the King's prime minister, Estraven, and is hoping for an audience with the King.  Unexpectedly, the prime minister is sacked and exiled, and Genly is refused by the king, leaving him feeling betrayed and angry with Estraven.

Estraven flees Karhide to neighboring and rival country Orgoreyn, where he can hide, while Genly leaves the capital of Karhide and goes further afield to see more of the outlying areas of the country and learn more about the Foretellers, a group of people who can intuit the future.  From there he decides he will try his luck in convincing the leaders of Orgoreyn to join the interstellar confederacy, since he has not been successful in Karhide.  In Orgoreyn he is received enthusiastically by the leaders but behind his back he is sabotaged, and when he does not heed the subtle warnings given to him by Estraven, he finds himself arrested and sent to a brutal labor camp.

Slowly perishing from the harsh conditions in the camp, Genly is rescued just in time by Estraven, who decides they must undertake an 800 mile trek across a glacier to get Genly back over the border into Karhide. Estraven believes there is a chance, given the political situation, that the king can now be persuaded to join the confederacy.  During this long, dangerous and frigid trek, Genly and Estraven form a deep bond of friendship, despite their previous misunderstandings and inability to accept their differences, including their different modes of communication and sexuality.

One of the major threads of the book is the Gethenians' androgynous sexuality and how this impacts society and relationships between individuals.  Genly, as an outsider looking in, finds it fascinating but very confusing, and until he has a better grasp of it, it effects his relationship with Estraven and others.  Another major theme is the idea of culture shock and how one navigates being placed into a completely alien culture; and how one's perspective towards one's home culture changes drastically but at the same time without awareness - not until, that is, one is confronted with that home culture once again.  This is something I can definitely relate to.

This was a fascinating book, not only because of the highly original characters, Le Guin's dignified vintage prose, but also in the way the chapters alternated between Genly's dispatches to his superiors, Estraven's diary entries, and old Gethenian folk tales and legends, which enables the reader to really form a full and vivid picture of Le Guin's imagined world.  Excellent read!

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