Writing about a breakout masterpiece from one of the greatest writers of our time is a challenge, especially when the writer has spoken eloquently about the work in interviews and in the book’s own introduction.
For those who don’t already know, The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969 was LeGuin’s thought-experiment, investigating what a genderless world could teach us about equality, otherhood and love.
“The future, in fiction, is a metaphor,” she writes. “A metaphor for what? If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.”
In this future-metaphor, LeGuin uses an amazing conceit, still surprisingly rare among the ranks of science fiction writers, of a planet where gender and sexuality work differently, where everyone is androgynous most of the time, and only become male or female in a monthly version of being in heat, with the gender outcome being at random and up to various factors. Thus anyone can become pregnant, and most people are male sometimes and female other times for sexual purposes, without it becoming an identity.
If that’s not fascinating enough, along comes Genly Ai, a male (human standard) envoy from a vastly more advanced culture, soliciting the inhabitants of the planet (Winter) into membership in the advanced culture’s loose interstellar organization. The resulting adventures for Mr. Ai, dilemmas for the people of Winter, and gender-theory strangeness, make for riveting reading.
Moreover, few writers have LeGuin’s mastery of the conventions of fantasy. The writer effortlessly establishes the just-industrializing city of Ehernrang, capital of Karhide, and its people, with a kind of alien majesty that’s just disorienting enough.
“I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.”
“Rainclouds over dark towers, rain falling in deep streets, a dark storm-beaten city of stone, through which one vein of gold winds slowly.”
“I made my way to and through the Palace in the quiet and pale darkness of snowfall, losing my way only once. The Palace of Erhenrang is an inner city, a walled wilderness of palaces, towers, gardens, courtyards, cloistrs, roofed bridgeways, roofless tunnel-walks, small forests and dungeon-keeps, the product of centuries of paranoia on a grand scale.”
The planet is as far submerged as it could be into winter and still support human life. The love story is profoundly unusual, and the book, one I’m tempted to start again from page one, will be on my “100 Alternative Classics” list for sure.