LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness.

NY: Walker, 1969.

I’ve been a devoted reader of science fiction since discovering Heinlein in my elementary school library in the early ‘50s, and, like most SF fans, I have a short list of authors whom I consider to be the “best” or “most important,” and whom I proselytically recommend to others. Those names have changed somewhat over time, but LeGuin has been on there continually since the late ’60s. Partly, this is probably because my tastes run more to “intellectual” science fiction than rocket ship shoot-‘em-ups, and LeGuin is one of the best around in that regard.

Every sentence she writes will give you something to think about. And this is easily one of her very best novels, having won both a Hugo and a Nebula. (And she did it again with The Dispossessed, making her the first ever to win both those top awards for a single novel twice.)

It’s useful to remember, too, that she’s the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, a noted anthropologist in the early part of the 20th century, because sociological and anthropological what-if-ing plays a major role in her work. (A key reason I’ve always enjoyed C. J. Cherryh’s books, too — and Cherryh is also a big LeGuin fan.)

Genly Ai, a native of Earth but trained on Hain (whence all the worlds of Man — including Earth — were settled many hundreds of centuries ago), works for the Ekumen as a First Mobile. There are a lot a original concepts in that single sentence, and the author makes the most of them in nearly all her non-fantasy novels, but this one boils down to a “first contact” story, with Genly Ai at the pointy end. The Ekumen (which is a sort-of educational and trade organization, not a government or a federation of any kind) is trying to reinstitute relations among all those worlds, and has enlisted eighty-four of them so far. The Mobiles have the job of convincing each newly contacted culture that they’re not a threat, there’s no pending invasion, and both sides would benefit from the relationship. And Genly Ai knows it’s not unusual for a First Mobile to lose his life — in which case, there will be a Second Mobile, and then a Third.

Gethen (known simply as “Winter” to the first covert Investigators) is a very, very cold place. A pleasant day in their very short Spring is zero degrees Centigrade. The fact of their absolutely unforgiving climate is one of the two absolutes that permeate every aspect of their lives and culture. The other is the fact that they are neither men nor women but potentially both, though always temporarily. For a few days in every monthly cycle, they enter “kemmer,” during which they may become pregnant or impregnate someone else, whichever their body happens to decide that month. “The mother of several children may be the father of several more.” What this means is, there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, no expectations based on gender — “one is respected and judged only as a human being.” And there’s no war. There’s plenty of violence, just as on any human world, but only in personal and local forms. There’s no institutionalized aggression at the national level.

Genly Ai has begun his mission by landing in the kingdom of Karhide, the ruler of which is insane. Of course, the locals don’t know what to make of him, but he gradually manages to convince a number of important people that he is who and what he says he is. But the Karhidish political system is becoming increasingly nationalistic and “the Envoy,” as they insist on calling him, becomes a tool for those who want to move the country in a different direction. One step ahead of a personally dangerous situation, he crosses the border into Orgoreyn, a very different sort of country with a strong whiff of the soviet about it, and things don’t go much better for him there.

LeGuin uses the Envoy’s travels as a way to explore a human but very un-Earth-like society. As he wanders about Karhide at first, meeting and visiting with ordinary people and getting a feel for the place (a key part of his job), he finds that “few were frightened of me personally, or showed a xenophobic revulsion. An enemy, in Karhide, is not a stranger, an invader. The stranger who comes unknown is a guest. Your enemy is your neighbor.” He also acquires important new insights: “One of the most dangerous [fallacies] is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: That it is the opposite of primitiveness. Of course, there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both.”

The author is especially skilled at delineating alien psychologies and personalities. In the case of the Gethenians, it’s their closeness to Earth-type humans in all but a very few, very important, ways that makes them seem so alien to the reader — much more so than if they were six-legged reptilians. But LeGuin paints them as complete individuals, too. “I never knew a person,” Genly Ai says, “who reacted so wholly and rapidly to a changed situation as Estraven. He was never rash or hurried, but he was always ready. When I came [to this world], he was ready. No one else on Winter was.” Estraven, once Prime Minister of Karhide, now an exiled traitor, is the only individual on Gethen who seems to understand what the Envoy’s mission actually is, and why it’s so important to his world.

I re-read Left Hand every five years or so, the same way you re-read an epic poem — not only for what it has to say but for the way it says it, the language itself. LeGuin strews enlightening folktales and bits of local history through all her books and she has truly poetic skills in stringing the words together. There aren’t enough stars to give this book the rating it actually deserves.

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