Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is the fourth novel in her Hainish Cycle. The novels can all act as standalones, and this is the one that tends to get recommended above the others as a classic of feminist science fiction – hence its inclusion on my classics club list. At the start of the novel, Terran man Genly Ai has gone as an ambassador of a federation of planets to a planet that has, as yet, not had any contact with the outside world. I love all the sociocultural stuff around First Contact in science fiction, so that’s an immediate tick in my box. The planet he’s ambassador to, Gethen, has a quirk that no other planet in the federation does – the inhabitants are biologically “ambisexual”: they have no biological sex outside of their mating cycle (kemmer), which occurs roughly once a month, and the rest of the time they are androgenous. Any inhabitant of the planet can take on either male or female characteristics during kemmer, meaning that there is no such thing as gender roles except as they specifically relate to pregnancy, and then only when someone is pregnant. The person responsible for trying to integrate Genly Ai into society is Estraven, a high-ranking diplomat or politician.
At the beginning of the novel, Ai has spent a year or two on Gethen, embedded in one of its two main countries, Karhide. He has come to grudgingly trust Estraven, though he is still quite confused by Karhider society, when all of a sudden it seems that something goes wrong and he has to flee to neighbouring Orgoreyn. The majority of the novel concerns both the reasons why the Something goes wrong, and the consequence of Ai fleeing. It looks at the cultural differences between the Terrans and the Gethenians, as well as the differences between Karhider and Orgoreynian society. Eventually, towards the end of the novel, it begins to look at the complex relationship between Ai and Estraven, and the way they have misunderstood one another as a result of these cultural differences. Le Guin uses a format where we get different chapters from different viewpoints (interspersed with extracts from mythology and other documentation), so we get a really clear understanding of why each of the characters thinks and feels the way they do. I like the fact that Le Guin trusts her reader and doesn’t bother to tell us which character is narrating which chapter – confusing to start, but I started to pick up on differences in storytelling style and perspective quickly, and eventually it becomes very clear.
The sex and gender stuff – I’ve got to be honest – I found pretty tedious. This is, of course, not the author’s fault: like reading a Sherlock Holmes story and thinking it’s rehashing old territory, the problem is that I’ve read so many authors who were inspired by Le Guin that it now feels tired. Much more interesting, as far as I am concerned, is the way she handles the miscommunications between the two central characters. The miscommunication is caused by deeply entrenched cultural differences, where e.g. one culture values discretion and one values openness, one language includes a great deal of gesturing while the other relies heavily on tone etc. I love this type of thing when it’s done well – two people who may well have each other’s best intentions at heart, but are completely failing to understand each other. I think that science fiction is a great place to explore it. That’s one of the reasons I loved Shards of Honour so much last year, for instance. The final chapters of this novel, which deal with those cultural differences and miscommunications, were very strong.
Still, despite all the good in this novel, for me – and this is merely a matter of personal preference – plot and philosophy can never make up for characters I’m not invested in, irrespective of how interesting the material is. I just wasn’t bothered about any of the point-of-view characters for the vast majority of the novel. I would say that it finally picked up in the last quarter, and when it did I read it straight through one afternoon – but I am not sure that it was worth slogging through the first 75% to get there. I don’t know that I’ll be picking up any more of the Hainish Cycle, though I might still try the Earthsea books, which I understand are more like traditional fantasy novels. So – I think this is very much worth reading if you’re interested in the history of science fiction, or if philosophical debates can hold you on their own, but otherwise I’m not sure I can recommend it with particular enthusiasm.
This feels a bit like when I read The Handmaid’s Tale and didn’t like it. Do I have to turn in both my feminist card and my science fiction lover card now? That would be a shame. I can understand why this is a classic – and, indeed, I think it was a good Classics Club read – but it really wasn’t for me. Here’s hoping that some of the other classic science fiction on this list is more to my taste.