Classics of Science Fiction: The Left Hand of Darkness

by Tom Grundy

Classics of Science Fiction: The Left Hand of Darkness
April 19, 2020 Tom Grundy

In this new semi-regular feature we look back at the seminal works of science fiction. The stories that outraged, baffled, and appalled; the books that posited answers a generation before anyone thought to ask the questions; the novels that bent society’s collective consciousness around them and seeded popular culture and humanity’s vision of itself to this day. From Frankenstein to Foundation, these are the books that blew our minds and created our genre. 

The Left Hand of Darkness is ostensibly two texts, presented together: the journal of Genly Ai, a diplomat visiting the world of Gethen; and parts of the diary of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, a senior politician and bureaucrat of one of Gethen’s nations. Genly Ai is an Envoy, sent to prospective worlds to warm them up to the idea of joining the technologically-advanced and enlightened Ekumen, an off-stage alliance of civilised worlds. The meat of the story concerns his travels on Gethen, the people he meets, and their differing reactions to his mission. 

The novel’s universe is faintly-sketched. We see nothing of life within the Ekumen or its marvels, and nothing is mentioned of the path humanity could have taken from Le Guin’s 1969 to the distant future. Almost no exposition is given; tantalisingly, at one point Genly suggests that the Gethenians may have been a genetic experiment, but we’re left with no idea by whom or to what end. The story insinuates that the Ekumen has arisen after some kind of dark age or cultural regression.

Gethen, or ‘Winter’, is a very cold world. It is mostly ice and in summer only an equatorial band thaws. Gethenians are hermaphroditic. They enter ‘kemmer’ — or heat — once per month, in which they briefly become either male or female, in order to have sex and breed. Nobody is forced to work while in kemmer. Few people marry. ‘Kemmer houses’ are not brothels, and there are no gender roles.

The setting is original and intriguing, but it’s not the setting that makes The Left Hand of Darkness a great novel. Most obviously, it was (and arguably still is) a radical thought experiment — what would people be like if you took sex out of the equation? The luggage of gender-defined expectations that Genly brings with him is a source of misunderstandings throughout the story. 

Gethen is not a kaleidoscopic sci-fi panorama — partly because it’s too cold, admittedly, but also by design. This is a novel about people, not exotic alien landscapes or wacky species. It isn’t a space opera. The people it depicts are complex and richly-textured, though; their food, their customs, their folklore, and their dialects are all fleshed out through Genly’s stumbling attempts to understand them as well as Gethenian myths and stories peppered between the chapters. Bleak and mundane it may be, but many science fiction settings look two-dimensional compared to Gethen. 

Most importantly, for this writer at least, The Left Hand of Darkness is a powerfully affecting love story. It is one of the most poignant I remember, of any genre, and is certainly one of the most moving in the science fiction oeuvre. Le Guin is coy with Estraven; we see them a bit in the opening chapters, where they’re established as an important but frustrating figure for Genly; and then they duck offstage for the majority of the novel, to be occasionally mentioned or alluded to until the wonderful climax. This is a love story without consummation, gender, sex, or even acknowledgement — and yet, to this writer at least, very rarely in fiction have two characters seemed so matched. 

The Left Hand of Darkness earned Le Guin the first Hugo Award and Nebula Award ever won by a woman and, since it was published in 1969, few conversations about sex and gender have taken place in the science fiction world without reference to it. Le Guin herself called the book a “thought experiment”, and it’s certainly its experiments with gender that have earned it its fame. Interestingly, Le Guin wrote in 2009 that her “wintry world was to be unique in one aspect, it was to be a world that had never had a war” — and that, once decided upon, this point of difference led to the idea of a genderless society, and not the other way around. 

Some readers have taken aim at Le Guin for not going further with the idea once settled upon. To a modern reader, the choice to give the Gethenians all male pronouns certainly blunts the impact of their unsexed nature and makes it easy to ignore — the use of ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun wasn’t unheard of in 1968. Le Guin herself acknowledged that this criticism had a point in 1988.

The Left Hand of Darkness is certainly an important book, but it’s much more than that. It is great not just because it was “part of the change”, as the author herself put it in 2009; it is also a gripping adventure story as well as a deeply moving account of love and friendship.