The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin; A Review and Love Letter

‘It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Some possible mild spoilers in this review. Also note content warnings for miscarriage, incest, mentions of torture and death of a parent/sibling.

I distinctly remember the first time I read this book. It was January 2018. Why I remember it so vividly is because this was both the first book I ever read on audio, and it was bitterly cold. Januaries in Ireland are always similarly damp and cold but this one seemed especially grim. I was walking down a very long hill on my way to work. That’s when I met Genly Ai and Estraven.

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose—and change—their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

Many of you who visit this blog, follow me on Twitter or just know me in general, will be aware of my love for Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve been reading and reviewing her work over time on the years on this blog and there never seems to be a book of hers that doesn’t blow me away. Granted, some I find a bit less to my taste than others, but they never fail to be interesting and a mine for discussing with others. This is the book that began all that love.

We are following fish out of water Genly Ai, a terran/Earth man, sent to the planet Gethen as a diplomatic envoy. Gethen, a planet who’s name to us Terrans literally means winter, is the home of a people who are genderless and genderfluid all in one. There is no war, there is no rape. There is a subtlety to their communication using Shifgrethor, the Gethenian approach to manners and keeping face. There are layers to them that Genly Ai can’t figure out, but most of all how they function as a genderless society. I think the opening pages summarise Ai best;

The gossiwar, played only in the king’s presenct, produces a preposterous disconsolate bellow…If this is the Royal Music no wonder the kings of Karhide are all mad.

pg 3, The Left Hand of Darkness

As I mentioned at the start, this was my first Le Guin novel. I don’t think I had ever read an intentionally unlikable male character before this either that I actually didn’t want to throttle. I found him, interesting? Would that be the word? Or maybe I pitied him. Not long after Ai is introduced, we meet his insider to the king and prime minister of Karhide, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven or Estraven as he is often referred to by Ai. Now one of the things I will do here, is refer to Estraven as he/him since that is the pronouns Le Guin assigned to the Gethenians instead of they/them. This of course to varying levels of critique. Estraven is very quickly revealed to be untrustworthy, declared treasonous by Argaven the mad king and Ai, already wary of him, just feels vindicated and his time wasted.

Something about this being the start of the book really sticks with me. Le Guin makes it very clear that Ai is a man who just isn’t even trying to understand the unique nature of Gethen. It’s something that bothers him, shaking up his lifelong teaching on gender, sex and procreation. They make him uncomfortable. And they in turn consider him a pervert, since being a cisgender man in their eyes is ‘permanent kemmering’. Something I always find with people’s built in prejudices is how vindicated they feel when someone who is ‘other’ to them is proven to be untrustworthy.

There is so much to deconstruct in Ai alone, setting him up as an incredibly flawed person, but it’s through his relationship with Estraven. Despite his disgrace, Estraven is determined to see Ai to success and safety. After a Ai is captured in Orgoreyn by a set of secret police, it’s here we really see the true nature of Estraven. He steals, lies and does everything he can to save Ai, including activating powers he can only use for limited amounts of time to carry him to safety. And then begins their journey across the ice and back to each other.

It’s a strong temptation I would say to see these two as lovers, as a pair to ship. Especially as they are alone on the ice. But what really astounds me, is the level of intimacy between the two as they come to understand each other now there is no shifgrethor. There’s no hangups when the two of you are surviving a literal trek across glacial ice.

These might all sound like smaller moments to anyone just reading this in passing, but this part of the book was the one that I always remember the most fondly. The level of empathy put into this story found me when I needed it most. Unhappy, unsettled, I came to understand from these two that something has to be done, and it’s worth doing it right. People will understand. And noone puts it better than Becky Chambers in her own description of Estraven and Ai;

They must do it together. They can only do it together.It is not what is easy. It is what is right.

What a profound thing to read today.

Becky Chambers, in her introduction to the Folio Society edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, 2018.

This is meant to function both as my first review of one of my favourite books, but it’s also turned into a lot of emotion on an individual post. I only hope sharing it that people read this and go ‘I get that.’. That is after all what this story is about. I wrote a lot of this while my cat was terminally ill and he passed away before I could finish it. A lot of this has been cathartic and confronting in a way that I am grateful for. However accidental.

So this post is for you Brucey J, the ham stealing, most photogenic cat in Cork. Thanks for checking in guys, happy reading.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. carolinejrn says:

    Wow, thank you for this. I always read your reviews but this one touched me. I remember reading this book for the first time; and it blew my mind. It helped me understand my own emotions surrounding gender and my sexual orientation. Not an awakening, more like a slow unfurling. So thank you. Im so sorry for the loss of your beloved ca; animals make us better human beings


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