When I saw Ursula K. Le Guin speak in Seattle, the book I bought for her to sign was The Left Hand of Darkness, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when it was released in 1969 (note: if anyone thinks that having her sign it affects my objectivity in reviewing this book, allow me to draw your attention to my review of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, which the author also signed for me).
The Left Hand of Darkness starts out as a typical science fiction book, interested in observing the people, customs, climate, and terrain of an alien world. On the planet of Gethen, the First Envoy, Genly Ai, has come to offer the people of Karhide a trade alliance with the Ekumen, whose alliances with other worlds has improved the lives of all. The Gethenians are neither male nor female, but can become either sex during kemmer, which occurs on the 22nd or 23rd day of a 26-day cycle (96). His mission starts to unravel when the Prime Minister of Karhide is exiled before Genly’s audience with the king, purportedly for his support of Genly’s mission, and political factions within the neighboring nation of Orgoreyn try to recruit Genly to help them in their pursuit of power.
What is slowly revealed, however, is that Le Guin is interested not in the differences inherit in different cultures and peoples, but in their similarities. This is most explicitly handled in the complicated relationship that exists between Genly and Estraven, the exiled prime minister. Genly does not trust Estraven, though Estraven rightly warns him of Tibe (the king’s cousin and the man who becomes prime minister after him) before he is exiled, and warns him of the factions in Orgoreyn before Genly is sold out by them to the Sarth, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Soviet Union’s secret police, as Orgoreyn does to the Soviet Union. In addition, Estraven rescues him from the “farm” where the Sarth have sentenced him to live until the cold and exhaustion and hunger kill him. Together they cross the Ice, a vast lifeless region flanked by mountains and volcanoes, in order to find a way back to Estraven. As they ski over miles of snow and ice, having nothing to rely on but each other, Genly soon realizes why he has never trusted Estraven, even though Estraven has always trusted him:
And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me entire personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man. (266-67)
This, then, is what sets Le Guin apart from most science fiction and fantasy authors. While they only interest themselves in creating worlds for the reader to inhabit, Le Guin also interests herself in the characters who inhabit it. Even rarer, she is interested in how life experiences affect and change her characters, so that they grow and react to the events occurring around them.
The journey on the Ice, therefore, is made powerful not just because of the effort required to traverse it, but because of the effect it has on Estraven and Genly. It gives the work a poignancy that a tale denied these revealing human moments would lack. In this, too, it reflects the times in which it was published, at the end of a decade that saw political assassinations, the triumph of civil rights, the first man on the moon, the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the rise of the modern feminism movement.
But what is the left hand of darkness? Its meaning is revealed late in the book, in a lay that Estraven recites one night during their journey across the Ice:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way. (252)
So, a book that begins as an exploration of the stars ends up becoming what all great literature is about: an exploration of what it is to be human. To be aware of the interconnectedness of things. To see life in death and death in life, darkness in light and light in darkness, male in female and female in male. Estraven helps Genly in order to further the designs of mankind, but he also does what he does out of love, love for this stranger who has come from the stars with a message that only he is ready to hear, that only he understands. And the reason he understands it is because he is willing to embrace both the left hand of darkness and the right hand of light, both the end…and the way.
All page numbers are taken from the Ace premium edition of this book, published in paperback form in December 2010.