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The Left Hand of Darkness

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Take Care → Positive

In Brief: An intriguing story, suitable only for mature teenagers or adults, which explores the issues in a world where everyone is both male and female, sexually latent for most of the month, but open to mating for a few days. Contraception and other sex-related drug use along with kemmer houses for the recourse of the sexually active. Stoic bravery and endurance by the lone envoy who is committed to his cause of welcoming a new planet to the federation. Two characters taking many risks for friendship's sake. Some prophecying.

Cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Author: Ursula LeGuin

Publisher: Orbit

Published in: 1969

Age Range: Mid Teens+

Period: Far Future

Setting: The world of Winter

Genres:  SciFiThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Genry is the envoy from a human planetary Federation to the world of Winter. Used to a hot climate, he must endure the planet's constant cold plus the difficulties of being a lone envoy and the only single-sex human on a world where everyone is ambisexual.
  • Estraven is a high-ranking official who befriends Genry and is exiled as a result when the political feeling turns against the newcomer. He risks much to rescue Genry from prison, at first out of political necessity but later out of friendship.

Synopsis:

Genry is the envoy from “The Ekumen”, a federation of human planets originating from Earth, to the world known as Winter, cold all year round and where everyone is ambisexual: sexually latent for most of the month, but able to mate for a few days when one or other sexual characteristic will dominate. Genry's male sexuality is viewed as a perversion and when the political mood turns against him, he is thrown in prison, from which an exiled friend helps him to escape, leading both of them on a perilous journey on foot across hundreds of miles in icy weather.

Notes:

This is a book which explores the issues around the extent to which our societies are dominated by our sexual identities and dualities. Clearly this is not a book for younger readers. It may well not be a book for older readers. But the most striking thing about this story — a story which turns on sexual identity and in which almost every character is ambisexual — is that there are no sexual encounters described. Not even in a situation when two characters are sharing a tent for weeks on end, during which time one of the characters enters “kemmer”: a period of a few days when his sexual instincts are aroused. There's no doubt that this book is not for younger readers, but nor is it an excuse for the depiction of sexual activity. One chapter does consist of an official federation report explaining the sexual characteristics of the planet's natives, but it's all couched in clinical terms and not calculated to excite unncessary interest.

My overall feeling is that, while interesting, the story doesn't bring quite enough to the table to merit grabbing it off the shelf. But it's a thoughtful book, making reasonable use of its SciFi setting — a human-populated universe many years in the future when planets have combined into a loose federation called the Ekumen. In spite of that name, presumably from its Greek root meaning “the whole world”, there are no religious overtones. There are, however, references to Christianity as a religious movement still in existence.

The main question the book poses is the extent to which our behaviour as humans is dominated or influenced by our differences in sex. And this at two levels: whether the apparent duality of two different biological and psychological sexes informs our whole world-view; and whether our view of any one person is influenced more or less by our knowledge of their sex. Winter is not a perfect world: there are political intrigues, acts of pettiness and revenge, acts of greatness and generosity. While there are no acts of war as such, the story is leading towards one such act at its climax. If the story has an answer to its questions, it seems to be that the sexual nature of the Gethenians (the native name for the planet) makes them different but not free from the usual human problems.

There is a semi-spritual element to the story, leaning towards a Tibetan-style mysticism. There are groups of people — Handdara — who live in lonely Fastnesses and who can, in a mystic gathering, foretell the future at some level. Genry visits one such community, and stays there a while, finding in the Weaver Faxe a steadier character than the more ambivalent Gethenians he's left behind in the city. Genry's initial friend Estraven, exiled for that association, later rescues the envoy from prison and undertakes a gruelling journey of hundreds of miles across snow and ice. It turns out that he was raised among the Handdara and retains some of their skills in controlling his body to cope with the rigours of the journey. By doing this, he can give more food and more support to Genry, who must simply endure the journey.

Themes:

  • The extent to which the fact of sexes determine our dealings with others

Sunday 28th March 2010