The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Published 1969, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
Sometimes seminal works of art receive the attention they deserve. Back in the late sixties, LeGuin’s novel took the science fiction world by storm, which contributed to the birth of an entire subgenre, feminist science fiction. The publication and critical acclaim of The Left Hand of Darkness are considered part of second-wave feminism (first-wave was mainly concerned with women’s suffrage, whereas second-wave tackled the innumerable other gender inequalities baked into our culture for thousands of years). But when I first read this book in high school, I don’t recall understanding any of that. I just read it because it’d won awards. Nonetheless, it worked its magic on me and got under my skin in ways I wouldn’t begin to recognize until much later.
This novel of the far future relates the story of a space envoy, Genly Ai, from a loosely confederated group of planets, visiting the world of Winter. Genly befriends the androgynous alien Estraven. Genly’s mission is to invite that planet’s peoples into his confederation. There’s a wrinkle: Genly is male, but the humans of Winter are all sexless. Someone like Genly, who is a specific gender 100% of the time, is considered a ‘pervert’. Genly’s inability to understand how a society of people who are sexless is the crux of the novel. The story delves into some profound sociological and political questions: if you have a civilization that isn’t patriarchal, how does that affect culture, commerce and conflict?
The genius of The Left Hand of Darkness is that it does all of the above while also delivering an epic tale, building a whole world and its history, written in gorgeous language:
Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness is the right hand of light…
I recently re-read this novel, some fifty years after its publication, and it still holds up, feeling as fresh and vibrant today as it did decades ago. Even my favorite snob, literary critic Harold Bloom, considered The Left Hand of Darkness to be one of the shining examples of genre science fiction elevating its literary category, if you will, into literary fiction. (Hell, what is literary fiction? In my opinion, more than being well-written, it’s simply a work that is able to do many things at once, seamlessly.)
It seems to me that LeGuin, in order to talk about gender issues and feminism like she wanted to, needed to set her novel in a world where an androgynous society existed–that is, write a science fiction novel. In so doing, she doesn’t try to imagine an utopian society. The world of Winter, with its rival countries and harsh environment, struggles with many things that make it imperfect in very human ways. Ways an unsuspecting reader can identify with and buy into. Therein lies another factor of LeGuin’s genius. She isn’t selling an agenda, she’s shining a light: what might our own world be like if it weren’t patriarchal? Her suppositions are approachable, realistic and thought provoking.
Finally, another reason I honor this book is because when it was published, it was shocking. It was bold, audacious. LeGuin was fearless. Today this book might not seem so groundbreaking. But if you think about it and look at where our world is today, it’s today that we need books like this more than ever.
If your budget allows, I recommend picking up the Library of America two-volume set of LeGuin’s Hainish writings, which includes The Left Hand of Darkness. Inside the jacket they reproduce a beautiful map of LeGuin’s fictional world of Winter (called ‘Gethen’ by its natives).