Ethnologist Genly Ai travels to the planet of Gethen to try to convince the planet to join the Ekumen ally system. This planet is always freezing cold, but the thing Genly finds the hardest to get accustomed to is the inhabitants’ gender identities. Everyone there is androgynous, except during their mating cycle, the only time they can reproduce. They can become either male or female during this time, and can even be the opposite during a different cycle, depending on their mate. After living on the planet for a few years, Genly begins to fall into some sort of love with a Gethenian named Estraven, which he, a perpetual male, finds a bit disconcerting.
The main theme of this novel, I believe, is duality. Being cold all year round and holding androgynous inhabitants, Gethen seems to Genly to be, well, a bit one sided. However, as he learns new things along his journey there, he realizes that on his planet, where they have changing seasons and stagnant genders, there is more violence and confusion, Gethen being essentially more dual than his home planet. As a man in love with an androgen, Genly is apprehensive, but during Estraven’s mating cycle, he finally realizes that “he was a woman as well as a man,” the most dual anyone can be, really.
As for the title, “The Left Hand of Darkness” refers to a Gethenian poem written in the novel, in which light is the left hand of darkness and darkness is the right hand of light. More duality. Woohoo.
Ursula K. Le Guin is considered a feminist science fiction writer, and I suppose this book, while the narrator is a man, is a feminist work. “Estraven” isn’t far off from “estrogen” after all. Le Guin also wrote The Dispossessed, a novel about anarchy, and The Lathe of Heaven, in which a man’s dreams come true, literally. I’m totally not a fan of science fiction, but I rather enjoyed The Lathe of Heaven and dare I say the other two as well. I think you may too.
So, for those of you who have read The Left Hand of Darkness, what did you think of it?