The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin


“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.” 

This was written in the sixties, though it feels like it was written yesterday. Ursula K. Le Guin creates a vivid culture of ambisexual humanoids that come with a detailed history and culture. And it is truly fascinating to read about because such discussions and representations of gender and sex are strikingly relevant to modern society.

Genly Ai is a human envoy sent to the planet Gethen to persuade the natives to join an interplanetary trade alliance. Such a thing would benefit all involved as all cultures would expand intellectually and culturally. It’s about a shared exchange, about learning from one another in order to become better and more developed. The Gethenians as a people are gender neutral; they display no maleness or femaleness unless they go into kemmer (which is their biological mating cycle.) Whatever sex they display is entirely dependent on who they are partnering with at the time. 

A pervert is what Genly Ai comes across as. To the alien eyes of the Gethenians he looks like he’s in a permanent state of sexual arousal and they are totally confused and offended by it. They don’t trust him, and he must rely heavily on his diplomatic skills to ensure them of his genuine nature. Language barriers and misunderstandings cause several problems resulting in his imprisonment and near death. The point is, the novel highlights the need for effective communication and discourse for opposite cultures (and political systems) to reach an agreement, rather than branding the other a villain simply because they do not understand it in its differentness. We need to learn from the “other.”

However, for all the intellect the writing displayed, the plot was terribly slow for the first half. Very little happened, by way of action and dilemma. The progress that the book displays is a shifting of opinion, a development of perspective, as the two protagonists learn about each other’s culture and see their counterpoint as less alien: they begin to see the humanity in the other. And that’s kind of important because it transcends ideas of gender and sex, race and culture, looking only at what it means to be human and alive. Labels don’t matter, only the person matters. 

“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.”

So, this is a book that will appeal only to a certain type of reader because it is quite difficult to read. Although it is clearly science-fiction, it breaks genre boundaries with its lack of standard tropes instead choosing to question existence itself. It’s not a story designed to sweep you away, but it is a story that will make you think. There’s certainly a lot of wisdom in these pages. 

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