The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Short Take:

I’ve been slowly working through Le Guin’s Hainish novels. I’ve enjoyed them all but this one wowed me. It won the Hugo and Nebulla awards (the former selected by fans, the latter by fellow sci fi writers) when it came out in 1969 but seems very relevant today.

Why?

With so much discussion (and some confusion) about gender identity today this book could open eyes and minds, even though it is not about the LGBTQ community. Le Guin has been quoted as saying she deliberately eliminated gender in this novel to see what was left.

The inhabitants of the planet Gethan are androgynous except for a short monthly period they refer to as kemmer. At that point they take on either male or female characteristics (which can change each time) to allow mating. The rest of the time they care nothing about sex.

An earthling Envoy, sent to invite Gethen into the 83 planet Ekumen coalition, has never encountered anything similar anywhere. On the other hand, the Gethans think someone in kemmer all the time is a pervert. Children are raised by whoever births them (which can change, too) so career and life opportunities are truly equal for all.

It takes a close friendship between on Gethan and the Envoy to frankly address their differences. Their discussions and growing understanding of each other are reason enough to read this book. The Envoy, in particular, realizes how having males and females has shaped many of his perceptions — perceptions he now rethinks.

There’s also vast richness in the book’s portrayal of vastly different communications styles, and the presentation of some thought-provoking religious ideas,

In addition it’s a great story, with political intrigues (and very different governments) in two countries, great danger for several characters, and a desperate and terrifying plan for escape.

A Little Plot:

Envoy Genly Ai is on Gethan alone, to invite its people to join an interplanetary organization His biggest champion is Estraven. Ai is anticipating a positive audience with the ruler of the country of Karhide when Estraven is denounced as a traitor and threatened with death. This could mean death for Ai as well.

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