Sunday, December 05, 2010

Hands Joined Together

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness 
by Ursula K. Le Guin

"Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way."

This is primarily a novel about friendship -- one that crosses barriers of race and stars as Genly Ai, in the process of observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in Winter, and encountering their sexual andogyny, is drawn into a relationship with this strange world and some of the people in that world.   It takes place many centuries in the future - no date is given, though the year 4870 has been suggested.  An envoy, Genly Ai, is on a planet called Winter ("Gethen" in the language of its own people) to convince the citizens to join the Ekumen. Winter is, as its name indicates, a planet that is always cold, and its citizens are neither female nor male: they have gender identities and sexual urges only once a month. These conditions have affected the ways that civilizations on Winter have developed, with the most notable effect being that there has never been a war on the planet.
There are, however, arcane rules of politics and diplomacy that the envoy must learn in order to survive. His fortune changes quickly, according to what political faction is in power at the time in the country he is residing in: in one country, for instance, the Prime Minister arranges an audience with the king for him, but the next day the Prime Minister is exiled for treason; in another he has trouble determining which factions among the thirty-three Heads of Districts support him and which want to use him to gain political power. The struggle of Genly Ai as he tries to understand the ways of these people and survive on this hostile planet gives Le Guin the chance to explore what life would be like without the dualities, such as summer and winter or male and female, that form our way of thinking: the book's title comes from a Gethen poem, which begins, "Light is The Left Hand of Darkness … " It is his friendship with a local resident named Estraven and the resulting courageous actions that flow from that friendship that I found the most appealing aspect of this fine novel.  The story is moving, no less because it is beautifully written by an author who would win awards for her writing no matter in what genre she wrote. It is both one of the truly great science fiction novels of the twentieth century and one of my favorites.  
Harold Bloom wrote in the introduction to his anthology of criticism on the book that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time".  It won the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novel and 1970 Hugo award, and is considered by some to be one of the first major works of feminist science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.

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