I wrote earlier about how much I liked Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I’d like to try to explain why a little further. I’m generally not a science fiction reader, and that may not change, but I did enjoy this book enough to be open to other recommendations, or perhaps to reading other Ursula Le Guin books (thoughts, anyone??).
Ultimately what did it for me is the personal relationship the novel describes. I’ll always go for the social and personal dynamics in a novel, rather than for its other attractions — in this case, the political dimension Le Guin develops. I can’t really describe the relationship that develops between the two main characters, Genly Ai, the alien visitor on the planet Gethen, and Estraven, a Gethenian political leader, because it would give too much of the story away. But the novel opens with an encounter between these two, and as they meet and interact throughout the novel, their ideas and feelings about each other change in dramatic and satisfying ways. It’s through these two that Le Guin explores most deeply what it’s like to confront “otherness” in someone else and to try and understand that person, in spite of cultural obstacles. There is much they say to each other that the other misinterprets, and it’s a pleasure to watch them realize their mistakes and try to overcome them.
But the political element of the novel is fascinating too; the two countries on the planet Gethen that we hear about, Karhide and Orgoreyn, are going through a transformation, within themselves and in relation to each other. Karhide has modernized itself in many ways but has not yet developed some of the problems our modernized countries on earth experience, such as war or the consequences of the industrial revolution. Its citizens are not nationalistic in their thinking. And yet these things are changing; Karhide finds itself under new leadership that seeks to foster fear and hatred of other peoples and countries in order to consolidate power. Orgoreyn is a much harsher place; it has a system of surveillance and a powerful government reminiscent of fascist states here on earth. Tensions between these two countries are rising.
Into this political situation comes Genly Ai, a representative from the Ekumen, an alliance of planets dedicated to furthering, as Genly puts it:
Material profit. Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life. The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God. Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.
The members of the Ekumen have left behind many of the problems Karhide and Orgoreyn are only now beginning to face; they do not understand patriotism or nationalism and do not participate in war. The story, then, is about how well Genly fares in his quest to get the countries of Gethen to join the enlightened Ekumen, which can potentially change the course of their development.
So there’s all this going on, which is a pleasure to read, and there’s also an adventure tale of a trek across glaciers that’s incredibly exciting. And there are also sections interspersed between many of the chapters that tell of Gethenian myths, legends, and historical events so you get a sense of the history and culture of the people who inhabit Gethen. And there are the fascinating sex practices and gender dynamics that are so different from those on earth, which I wrote about here.
It took me a little while to get fully involved in the story — I supposed I’m not used to learning about a brand new world as one usually must when reading science fiction — but once I got a little ways into it, I was hooked and didn’t want it to end.