The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Left Hand of DarknessIt starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odharhahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, and did not know it.

I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.

Rainclouds over dark towers, rain falling in deep streets, a dark storm-beaten city of stone, through which one vein of gold winds slowly. First come merchants, potentates, and artisans of the City Erhenrang, rank after rank, magnificently clothed, advancing through the rain as comfortably as fish through the sea. Their faces are keen and calm. They do not march in step. This is a parade with no soldiers, not even imitation soldiers.

Genly Ai has come as the first envoy from the Ekumen to the planet of Gethen, known as Winter thanks to its deep-frozen climate. His is an alliance of planets dedicated to the exchange of knowledge and education. He comes alone, because “one voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets of armies, given time; plenty of time; but time is the thing that the Ekumen has plenty of”. I loved this philosophy, and what it tells you about the (otherwise barely seen) civilisation of the Ekumen.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a sweeping tale of Genly Ai’s efforts to win over the nations of Winter. He finds the people generally hospitable, at least on the surface, but there are endless political games, and communication takes place across layers of meaning which a foreigner can barely comprehend — much of which necessarily remains mysterious to the reader.

Ai begins in the state of Karhide where he finds an early ally in Estraven, a local lord. When Estraven is declared a traitor and banished, it doesn’t take long for Ai to decide that he, too, should pay a visit to the neighbouring land of Orgoreyn, to see if he has better luck there. The story alternates between Ai’s first-person narrative and extracts from Estraven’s journal, with occasional sidelines into folklore and history books, and follows them from Karhide to Orgoreyn and back again.

One of the most interesting features is the gender system on Winter, which is one of the first major sci fi works to experiment with the concept of a largely gender-neutral race: aside from a couple of days each month in kemmer, when people adopt physical gender characteristics for the purposes of mating, the people of Winter are ungendered. We see this phenomenon through Ai’s eyes, as well as observing Ai’s ‘perverted’ fixed gender through Estraven’s lens. LeGuin chooses to use the male pronoun throughout — the unmarked choice in standard English, although subsequently Ann Leckie has demonstrated an equivalent scenario using ‘she’ in Ancillary Justice. The various ramifications of this difference are felt across various elements of the story, from the social system on Winter to the difficulties Ai faces in trying to understand and make himself understood.

This is a sci fi classic, and it’s whetted my appetite to read other books from the Hainish universe (of which this is the fourth by publication order, but it stands alone).

The Left Hand of Darkness is available from Amazon.

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