The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is rightly considered a seminal work of science fiction. In Ms. Le Guin’s work the human race has long spread out across the universe. Various groups of people have inhabited different planets for so long that they have physically and culturally adapted to their specific worlds, forgetting where they came from and evolving new species of humanity.
On the planet know as Winter, due to its extreme cold climate, humanity has evolved by eliminating gender altogether. There is one ambisexual gender on Winter. Most of the time it is male but once each cycle people on Winter enter a sexual phase during which they may become female or they may remain male for the purposes of copulation and reproduction. It is common for one person to take both roles alternatively throughout their lifetime. Anyone who takes only one role exclusively is considered a sexual pervert.
Genly Ai, representative from the Ekumen of Known Worlds, arrives on Winter to make first contact with the people there. He is able to adapt to the culture on Winter though he never really gets used to the cold or completely used to the asexual inhabitants. He finds himself in the middle of a political struggle between the two leading nations on Winter. Once he is able to convince them that his story is true, they each try to use him as a pawn in their geo-political struggles against the other.
Genly forms an attachment with Estraven, a leader of one of the nations on Winter. He is not certain that he can trust Estraven who is later exiled from his home nation as a traitor. Genly is forced to flee to a rival nation only to find himself sentenced as mentally suspect to a prison farm where he is subjected to regular interrogations that leave him physically weaker and weaker. Estraven arrives, helps Genly escape and leads him on a journey across Winter’s frozen north lands to his home nation and safety.
It is on this journey that The Left Hand of Darkness is strongest. Each character must overcome the clash of cultures, their evolutionary differences and their own suspicions of the other in order to survive. Genly has to deal with a man who is also a woman, while Estraven must deal with a man his society considers a perversion. That the bond these two form is so moving speaks volumes for Ms. Le Guin’s artistry. She creates a people and a culture that is fundamentally alien to our own, and then leads us to understand it well enough to see ourselves in it.
I’m giving The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin five out of five stars. I don’t know if Maria Doria Russell gives Ms. Le Guin a special thank you in the preface to The Sparrow, but she ought to. Her novel owes a great debt to The Left Hand of Darkness. If you enjoyed The Sparrow I think you will find much to enjoy here.
Books like this one, along with titles by Marge Piercy and Samuel R. Delaney ought to be enjoying a renaissance these days, sine the issue of transgender rights has moved up from the back burner. What was once something only the distant edges of science fiction could deal with, the fluidity of gender, is fast becoming an everyday topic. Although it’s been a while since 2008 when I first published this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., even longer since the book was published in 1969, Ms. LeGuin still has much to show us about this topic.