Monday, January 10, 2005

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuin

On the planet Winter, conditions are harsh and forboding. Temperatures rarely lift much above freezing, even in the summer. In the distant past, before the collapse of their civilization, the Hainish colonized this cold planet, and their descendents now inhabit the milder regions, though vast glaciers cap the poles. The Gethenians, though, have an acute advantage: most of the time, they are genderless, existing without sexual drive nor possessing any genitals per se. However, entering kemmer, they take on male or female characteristics, different ones each time, and are fiercely driven to mate. If impregnated, he returns to a gender-neutral state while she carries the child to term, and then returns to a gender-neutral state as well. Otherwise, both return immediately.

Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen of Known Worlds, comes to Winter to negotiate a trade agreement. Being the first alien on Winter, and being of only one gender, and that constantly, he is regarded suspiciously, and considered a pervert. The Left Hand of Darkness tells how, through a series of hardships, he comes to understand the Gethenians as they are, rather than through a dichotomic lens.

I enjoyed this book, and, admittedly, even for our own time (the book was first published in 1969), the book has controversial themes. But, I read this book in the hopes of shaking my way of thinking about gender a bit, and I don't think that happened much. I don't know whether it's because I find it easy to imagine an entire planet of people lacking a specific gender, or if the book itself didn't go far enough. One of my complaints is that I wasn't constantly reminded of it; LeGuin uses 'he' for all the characters, with possibly an exception for those in a female phase of kemmer, which might also mean I've envisioned a world populated entirely by men that can have babies.

Otherwise, the book was interesting as science fiction (or, if you prefer, speculative fiction). LeGuin also deals with the common themes of politics, outsiders and mysticism, threaded throughout the narrative and seperate chapters with local legends and stories of Winter.

Overall, I recommend this book. LeGuin, even removing the element of gender, can write an intruiging story, well worth your time. Plus, you get to find out what the Left Hand of Darkness is. ;-)
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