The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover

This book was also part of my 2016 campaign to read more female authors. Unlike some of the other women I’ve read this year, UKL is one I’ve read before (see my review of “The Dispossessed”) and even earlier in the year (“The Lathe of Heaven”). But as my review indicates, I wasn’t that impressed with Lathe of Heaven, especially given how much I liked Dispossessed, so I wanted to cleanse my palate so to speak. TLHOD is generally known as UKL’s other best sci-fi book (along with TD, both of which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards–UKL was the first author to achieve this twice, and the only other authors who have done that since are Arthur C. Clarke and Orson Scott Card).

The story of TLHOD is a fairly simple one. The protagonist is an envoy of a loose interstellar confederation of planets that is sent to another planet to teach them of the existence of the confederation and to persuade them to join it. The story follows his experience on the planet (Gethen), which involves a fall from favor, exile, imprisonment, escape, and return. Although the frame of the story is based on interstellar and planetary politics, the story itself is an intensely personal one. The outcome of the planetary negotiation is almost incidental to the story and vastly overshadowed by the story of the development of friendship between the envoy and one of the natives.

TLHOD is mostly known for the fact that the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites who can change their gender on a monthly cycle. This is indeed the main “sci-fi” conceit of the book, although in truth one could just as easily call it fantasy, since there is nothing particularly sciency about it. (The story in general often reads a little more like fantasy, and could easily be converted without losing much of anything.) UKL certainly employs it to make some points about the role of gender in our society, although this is pretty subtly done, and even so, it does not come across as a “schtick.” The story could still hold together without it, and it mostly serves to reinforce the difficulty of the envoy in really connecting with the society he’s sent to. I would contrast this with another more recent Hugo-Nebula winner that I did not like nearly as much, “Ancillary Justice.” In AJ, the schtick is that the protagonist is an artificial intelligence that was designed to run a spaceship. If you drop that conceit, it’s really not clear to me what you have left–the plot itself is fairly unmemorable and doesn’t really hold together without it.

UKL is interested in Taoism–she even did a translation of Tao Te Ching–and that sensibility comes across in TLHOD, in a much less heavy-handed way than in Lathe. Obviously the hermaphroditic Gethenians are themselves an instantiation of the Taoist concepts embodied in the yin-yang. But there are some other really cool things as well. Probably my favorite is the religious order or cult called the Handdarata. This order has developed a legitimate power of divination, and will answer questions about the future for outsiders for a price. However, they do not use this ability to increase their power or influence, and indeed, the book is interspersed with a few tales describing instances where outsiders are brought to ruin by receiving (true!) answers to their questions about the future. This is of course an idea that has a long history, going back at least to Oedipus and even the Iliad. The Handdarata themselves operate on something like the Taoist principle of wu-wei or non-action. One of the Handdarata practitioners tells the protagonist that the reason that they willingly provide prophecies to outsiders is to show them the uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question; much of the Handdarata’s own spiritual practice centers around the “unlearning” of learning which questions not to ask. Anyway, I thought this was a super-cool idea that did a great job of blending some philosophical commentary with a fantasy/sci-fi concept. There are some other good examples of this in the book, like the confederacy’s practice of always initially sending only a single individual to a new planet as an envoy, because it does not represent a threat and forces the first connection to be made on the personal rather than political level.

Overall, this book is five-star to me because it has a great personal story of the development of trust between two very different people, which is mildly facilitated by turning some sci-fi knobs. For me (or I should say, for me-age-30), it is a better book than even the most classic sci-fi and fantasy like Dune or Lord of the Rings for this reason. Those books remain fairly heavily focused on the grand-scale developments, and only develop character relationships to the extent they are needed for the broader story. (There are some parallels to TLHOD in the final travels of Frodo and Sam in LOTR, but there is much less there in the way of character development.) Much like the Battlestar Galactica reboot, TLHOD is something I would not hesitate to recommend even to people who aren’t generally into sci-fi.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars