Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

David Mitchell has read it at least five times. Critics rave about the book endlessly. And I still don’t know what to make of it. But Mitchell is right — It is a book that merits a rereading, but maybe after some time and not immediately. Some of the ideas here are so bizarre, it is a book that covers a lot of ground and raises uncomfortable questions, especially in regards to gender, that one has to respect it as ballsy writing.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a story of an envoy who traveled to another planet (Gethen / Winter) to convince its inhabitants to join a cooperative in order to trade culture, knowledge and thus, accelerate progress. In some ways, it is a fish out of the water story — an alien among “aliens”. The biggest point of difference between the envoy and the Gethenites is their sexuality — Genly is a dark-skinned man much like any other men in earth, that is, with his schlong hanging out of his body. The Gethenites are asexual for the better part of a 26 day month and only becomes sexually active for two or three days during that time, when they become either a man or a woman. They will need to find someone within the same sexual cycle to satisfy their needs when they indeed get a little fidgety in a process called “kemmering”.

The terms in the books are invented for the sake of the world building. Sometimes we are as lost as Genly trying to navigate through the world. There is very little in expository until the middle of the book when some of the chapters cover the myths and anthropological observations of Gethen. But no mistake, these words are important. Le Guin is obsessed with words that go beyond what is available in English, and the multiplicity of meanings in a word. For example, the word “shifgrethor” means “face” or pride. But at the same time, the origin of the word comes from the word “shadow”.

The presence of shadow and light and their balance is essential in the book. Shadow does not imply something bad in the book, but it is complementary to light. Shadow allows to hide — it allows privacy. Light by itself can be misleading and dangerous. Just look at the epic sledge push in the Ice where one day Genly and Estraven woke up without seeing any shadows on the terrain, that they are liable to fall into crevasses without the shadows to warn them.

The book is full of these dichotomies and juxtapositions. We can also see this constrast in the two neighbouring countries Karhide and Orgoreyn, one ruled by a dictatorial king, the other by a commensality of 33 members, all jousting to turn their opinions into policy. Both systems treat Genly, as an outsider, unfairly and the systems and the higher powers ensure that the status quo is maintained. In the former, he was rejected by the king outright, on the other he was imprisoned.

Although the gender theme is the more popular point of discussion, the book also dives deep into the exploration of being an outsider. We get glimpses of this in Genly’s internal monologues and also how those close to him treat him — with artificial friendships externally but self-serving motives internally. Le Guin also asks an interesting question — does patriotism imply fear?

The most famous line of the book is startling, but makes perfect sense in the Gethen world — “The king was pregnant”. In the world where its inhabitants only become male or female once a month, everybody is pretty much in an equal footing. In Gethen, wars rarely ever happen, the harshest punishments are banishments, but there are the occasional murders here and there. Without the purely masculine identity in Gethenians, physical and violent aggression remains in check. However, we can say that the Gethenites are passive aggressive as they resort to manipulation, corroboration and often secrecy. Tibe pushed the envelope by planning to invade the neighbouring Orgoreyn, which manifested in tics of anxiety to Karhadians — something that was unfamiliar prior.

But skip all that. The Left Hand of Darkness is so rich that it’s easy to forget that the two main protagonists, Genly and Estraven are very likeable people. Sometimes the book reads like a travelogue to an unfamiliar place, and it is wonderful when it does this. Genly was the most tested, as his body is not used to the cold and he is not used to the norms, and so he must constantly learn and adapt. But in the writing, we only find out how much he suffered from the events that he described, and from the conversations he has with Estrevan. Estrevan himself had to go through a lot of hardship in the story and still stuck with his principles to the end. There is a lot to admire with these two characters.

At the end of the book, it reads more like an adventure novel, but this description really does the last part an injustice. You can imagine some of the harshness of the land, covered by snow and ice, volcanic geysers spurting out of ice, and as I mentioned, a landscape with no shadows. The world of Gethen is fully realised and though sometimes it lacks the description, our role as the reader is to fill the gaps in between.

Some day, may be over the next year or so I will reread the Left Hand of Darkness. And to be honest, I still don’t know what to make of the book even a few days after having finished reading it. There is so much to like here and so much left unexplored.

A full time project manager who loves to read on the side. Connect with me to chat anything tech and lit.