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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is one of two novels by Ursula K. Le Guin to be honored with both the Nebula and Hugo awards. (The other is The Dispossessed.) The first link in this paragraph is to the Wikipedia article on the novel, which discusses some of its aspects. I shall muse about some, too.

The novel gained notoriety because it described a race or species of humans who had no permanent sexual orientation. For most of the time, they are neither male or female. For a few days of each cycle, their sexual organs develop, and they experience intense sexual desire. They may become either male or female, depending on environmental cues. This makes such sentences as "the king was pregnant" possible. It allowed Le Guin to explore the importance of sexual roles in our own society, and to speculate about this fictional one, which lacked them. It also, by implication, examined the way the English language deals with such roles. (In case any one is interested, the novel is not about heavy breathing and ripping off clothing.)

In spite of our interest in sexual roles, and of the excellence of Le Guin's imagination, I submit that the novel is really about a more fundamental issue, communication and understanding.

The Ekumen is a loose organization of civilizations on many planets. When Gethen, where the novel takes place, is discovered, it sends individuals to Gethen, to learn as much as they can about life on this planet. These people are unobtrusive, and their origin was not discovered by the Gethenians. Then, Genly Ai, a dark-skinned male from Earth, is sent publicly, as the first Envoy from the Ekumen. It is his job to obtain permission to bring down the other personnel of his mission from the Gethenians, who are in stasis near the planet, and to start them on the road to joining the Ekumen. To do this, he must communicate in two languages not his own, with cultures not his own, and to beings whose gender orientation is not his. The cultural difference includes shifgrethor, a social fabric which the Envoy doesn't understand fully. It is something like face saving. He stands out physically, because he taller and darker than most Gethenians, and is in permanent kemmer, or sexual readiness. Genly Ai must use all his skills to communicate with the Gethenians, to understand them, and for them to be able to reciprocate.

The Ekumen wants Gethen to join it primarily so that communication of ideas will be possible. Gethen is seventeen light years from the nearest member planet, so trade will not be practical.

Genly Ai communicates with a number of persons, including the King of Karhide, one of the nations of Gethen, with some of the political leaders of Orgeryn, a rival nation, with many ordinary folk, and especially with Estraven, who is prime minister of Karhide as the book begins. It develops that, of all the leaders, only Estraven has really understood his mission, and the implications of it.

Gethen, or Winter, is a cold planet. Le Guin has done a superb job of describing how this fact influences eating, dress, transportation, and architecture, and of describing the weather and the climate. The cold of Gethen makes several parts of the book possible, especially an epic journey across the ice by Estraven and Genly Ai. During this trek, they learn to communicate telepathically.

One aspect of communication is the ansible. Using this, the Envoy tries to convince King Argaven that he really is an ambassador from other worlds. Argaven asks Genly Ai to ask the Ekumen what makes a man a traitor (he considers Estraven one). The Ekumen attempts to answer, across interstellar space, but the answer is no better than he could have obtained on Gethen.

Finally, a little on the structure of the novel. Much of it is Genly Ai's journal, or recollections. Much of it is Estraven's journal, sometimes giving a different viewpoint of the same events. There are also other viewpoints.

The only way to really grasp this great novel is to read it. And, although it is easily readable, it should be read more than once.

I plan to post again on this book. Thanks for reading.

A subsequent post considers religion in this novel.

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