‘Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling’The left hand of darkness, p.1
Eleven years ago, I published a post about one of my favourite books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), by Ursula K Le Guin. I don’t disagree with anything I said back then, but it does strike me that in mainly focusing, as most people do, on its famous treatment of gender and sexuality, I failed to write about what it is that I personally love about this book. So that’s what I want to try and capture now, as I revisit Le Guin’s first masterpiece for my Hainish Cycle re-read.
The Left Hand of Darkness is presented to the reader as a package of documents made up of reports, diaries, myths, and legends. The narrative begins with a report from a young ‘Mobile’ named Genli A. about his experiences on the icy planet that his people call Winter, or Gethen. As a representative of the Ekumen, a peaceful federation of worlds, his job is to introduce the Gethenians to the Ekumen and encourage them to become members. Young, inexperienced, and despite his claims to objectivity, clearly unsettled by the Gethenian’s unusual biology – if you don’t already know, the Gethenians only take on sexed roles when they are in the kemmer phase of their reproductive cycle, remaining sexually neuter the rest of the time (read the previous post for more). In any case, it is apparent to the reader that Genli’s understanding of Gethen and its people is partial at best.
He is hoping to get a meeting with the King of Karhide, which is being arranged by a Gethenian called Estraven, someone he considers an ally, but doesn’t entirely trust. Estraven is a powerful and rather mysterious individual who occupies a position something like a Prime Minister, so Genli is dismayed when he* invites him to dinner and tells him that he can no longer help him with his mission.
“I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of a dark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in the heart of the ice-age of an alien world’ p. 14.
Feeling betrayed, Genli goes to the interview with the king, only to find that Estraven has been declared a traitor and banished from the domain. His ambitions in ruins, Genli sets out to the neighbouring, and highly bureaucratic, domain of Orgoreyn, where he hopes to have better luck with his mission.
The narrative is then picked up by Estraven who is trying to escape from Karhide with his life. It quickly becomes clear that Genli has many things wrong about both Estraven and the Gethenians, and is probably walking into a dangerous trap in Orgoreyn.
From this point on, there are just so many wonderful things in The Left Hand of Darkness. The haunting myths and legends that punctuate the narrative. Genli’s strange encounter with Foretellers where he gets an answer to his question, ‘Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of known worlds, five years from now?’ Then there is the horrible but riveting journey over the mountains in a prison van after Genli is arrested in Orgoreyn, followed by his dramatic rescue from the prison camp by Estraven, with everything culminating in their terrifying, exhilarating journey across the Gobrin ice sheet.
‘We stowed the wheels, uncapped the sledge runners, put on our skis, and took off down north, onward, into that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent. The sledge pulled like a feather, and we laughed with joy’’. p. 179.
As it progresses, Left Hand’s narrative journey is really about travelling inwards, about being stripped right back to the core of who you are. It is only at the point when everything else has been stripped away, that Genli can break through his own socially constructed defences and realise the truth:
“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man’. p. 202.
He is finally able to open himself to their relationship, ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt’ (p. 203).
I think this is why I return to The Left Hand of Darkness over and over again; it is a real love story, an intense and compelling relationship between two people from which truth emerges. Genli does ultimately achieve his goal, but there is no happy ending. The Left Hand of Darkness is ultimately a tragedy, if a hopeful one.
This novel was a huge leap forward for Le Guin. Her earlier Hainish books are certainly enjoyable, but Left Hand is in an entirely different league of writing. The world building is superb. Gethen is so detailed and fully realised; Le Guin has created a world that feels alien, but also familiar. The cold, the cities, the people, the food, even the vehicles, all feel real. And then the way she conveys information about this world is so skilful. Despite having to impart an entire planet’s history and culture in a short book, there is no sense of “info dumping”. Le Guin cleverly uses myths and legends, reports, and dialogue to tell us what we need to know.
This brings me to the conclusion that The Left Hand of Darkness is really a story about the act of storytelling itself. It is full of people telling us stories and it ends with a child’s request for a story, “Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars?’’ It is as if, at this moment, Genli and le Guin have become one. After all, she would spend the rest of her life responding to our desire for stories of other people, other lives, other worlds.
A book that I’m sure I will continue to revisit regularly throughout my life.
*I use the pronoun ‘he’ in this post because that’s what Le Guin does in the book. But there’s plenty of discussion about this if you’re interested, including later attempts to address it by the author herself.
References are to my edition published by Orbit Books in 1992.