A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility; no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand’s touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is one of my favourite books of all time – in spite of being, I believe, a failure with regard to the conceit for which it is most famous.
In short: LHoD takes place on an ice age planet called Gethen, inhabited by a humanoid species that lacks any real fixed sex. For most of their lives, Gethenians exhibit no sexual characteristics; it is only when they mate that one temporarily becomes male and the other female. So Le Guin attempts to describe this race in androgynous fashion. But as others have remarked, the Gethenians generally come across as men who exhibit some female characteristics.
The fault isn’t quite due to Le Guin’s lack of craft. For this is one of the most beautifully written sci-fi novels ever penned. Rather, the issue is one of sexual anthropology: the male/female binary isn’t just a characteristic that runs deep in our nature. It’s simply what we are – men and women. So to attempt to imagine what we would look like outside of all this is largely an apophatic exercise. Such a person would not appear androgynous to us (for the phenomenon of sexual ambiguity itself presupposes the existence of stable categories), but rather alien in a fashion that would certainly stretch our imagination.
Where LHoD thematically works is in its exploration of how people can relate while remaining Other to each other. The book shares two narrators: Genly Ai, a human sent as an emissary from the Ekumen (a sort of galactic syndicate of civilizations), and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, a disgraced Gethenian politician. Although they share the same goal – an alliance of Gethen with the Ekumen – they spend much of the book misunderstanding each other, having been steeped in two very different cultures. The story charts the gradual development of their friendship.
One of the nice touches of Le Guin’s world is that, ‘going native’ for Genly is rendered a physical impossibility, thus eliminating one of the easy resolutions that stories like this can often take. LHoD instead actually cribs from Martin Buber’s I and Thou. So it’s worth trying to sum up what Buber says there:
In short, there are two kind of relations that humans can have: the I-It and the I-You. The I-It is basically the subject-object relation, where you relate to something in terms of what you can know about it and/or how you can use it. The I-You relationship is more like subject-subject, where you are relating to someone whose subjectivity impinges upon your world without being an object of knowledge in said world: I cannot peer into your consciousness (and vice versa) but we can talk to each other and have a relationship. And indeed this relationship depends upon the other remaining other and unknowable – otherwise we’ve slid back into the I-It.
Most of our relationships involve some mixture of both kinds. Even to see a friend for the sake of assuaging loneliness involves a degree of use. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s when our human relationships slide entirely into the I-It that things have gone perverse. God, for Buber, is the only one whose relation with us is entirely I-You. God exists outside of all human knowing and understanding, but you can pray to him.
Of course, God doesn’t really factor into this book: Le Guin is a Taoist, and to the extent that there is a religious angle in the book, it’s Taoism. But she uses Genly’s experiences on Gethen, and his relationship with Estraven in particular, to explore Buber’s conceit to great effect.
Another thing used to great effect is the wintery setting. This is probably the coldest book I’ve ever read, particularly in the final third, where Genly and Estraven are forced to make a daring journey across a large expanse of icy wilderness. It’s all very bleakly beautiful:
Towards the middle of Nimmer, after much wind and bitter cold, we came into a quiet weather for many days. If there was a storm it was far south of us, down there, and we inside the blizzard had only an all but windless overcast. At first the overcast was thin, so that the air was vaguely radiant with an even, sourceless sunlight reflected from both clouds and snow, from above and below. Overnight the weather thickened somewhat. All brightness was gone, leaving nothing. We stepped out of the tent onto nothing. Sledge and tent were there, Estraven stood beside me, but neither he nor I cast any shadow. There was dull light all around, everywhere. When we walked on the crisp snow no shadow showed the footprint. We left no track. Sledge, tent, himself, myself: nothing else at all. No sun, no sky, no horizon, no world. A whitish-gray void, in which we appeared to hang. The illusion was so complete that I had trouble keeping my balance. My inner ears were used to confirmation from my eyes as to how I stood; they got none; I might as well be blind.
The narrative is also often interrupted by excerpts from Gethenian myths, anthropological reports and the like. Although this sort of fake document approach is now taken for granted in sci-fi/fantasy, it was fairly novel at the time, and helps set the world and atmosphere tremendously.
The overall result is a narrative that is more slowly paced, and with a more observational tone, which may be off-putting to someone expecting more of an adventure story. But if you’re looking for sci-fi that’s a little more artsy and sober, it’s definitely up there in the ranks. Heck, even Harold Bloom put it in his personal canon of western lit, so it must be legit.