Unlike the conventional science fiction novels I am familiar with – oftentimes focused on technological advances and life on other planets, accessed through space or time travel – Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” places greater emphasis on socio-cultural differences, and in particular that of the themes relating to sex and gender as well as to patriotism or nationalism. In fact the planet of Gethen and its two major nations of Karhide and Orgoreyn, the setting of the book, is technologically more backward compared to Earth and its human civilisation. And it is on Gethen that protagonist Genly Ai lands, inviting the planet to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.
As an envoy, Genly Ai’s mission is complicated by his incomplete understanding of the norms and systems of the planet. Two fictional terms are of interest: First, shifgrethor, a set of unspoken social rules and formal courtesy which maintains harmony in relationships (“prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority”); and second, somer-kemmer, with “kemmer” being a short, cynical period of sexual activity and “somer” being the opposite. Inhabitants of Gethen are androgynous and ambisexual – with them becoming sexually male or female during kemmer – and this notion of sex and gender as irrelevant to social relations is explored through the perspective of Genly Ai, who struggles to decipher the appearances and disposition of the other characters.
The title, “The Left Hand of Darkness” features as the first line of a fictional poem: “Light is the left hand of darkness, // and darkness the right hand of light”. The subsequent four lines – with the play on contrasting opposites, of light and darkness, of life and death – is said to represent the Taoism sense of unity. In addition to this theme of sex and gender, the themes of patriotism or nationalism stood out too:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? … I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?”
“And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?”
In addition to the main plot involving Genly Ai and Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide – with the narrative points of view shifting between the two of them – there are fables, explanatory reports, and other anecdotes weaved throughout, especially in the beginning. In doing so, not only do these chapters add rich details to a fictional world, but they also explain some of the aforementioned terms and features in a non-awkward manner. And towards the end of the book, as Estraven and Genly Ai make their perilous trek across a vast ice sheet, the vivid descriptions of the journey brought to mind the harsh, real-life expeditions to the unforgiving South Pole too.