Book #25. The Left Hand of Darkness

I bought this book for a Science Fiction course I took in the fourth undergraduate year. I purchased all the books for the entire course, unknowing to the prospect of dropping the course in only two weeks. I only returned an anthology and reserved several stand-alone titles.  I was glad to do so when I met a customer who was reading The Left Hand of Darkness, written by the godmother of SF (isn’t that what she is called or is it just me….) when I was serving my parents’ restaurant. We had a good chat that was way more worth than the two weeks of university lecture. I promised him that I would read the book and I fulfilled it several years later.

I have to admit that I struggled to get into this book, mostly because of the alien terms invented by Le Guin. I desperately searched for glossary on the internet but most of them were incomplete. In the end, as a novice to SF, I didn’t have to know all the scientific terms to complete my priority: to get through this unkind novel of an unfamiliar genre with any means possible.

The plot is as follows. The human race living on the planet Winter has only one sex: in 26 days, they enter a period called kemmer, in which they take form of either male and female in order to have sex with one another and get pregnant. The protagonist Genly Ai landed on this planet in order to convince this alien race to join the Ekumen, sort of UN in space. Naturally, these asexual aliens do not trust this young man who is essentially different from themselves, both physically and sexually. A course of events drives Genly Ai to prison, and one of the Gethenians rescues him and comes to an understanding with him.

The relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is the most interesting part of this novel. It is much deeper than just friendship or alliance…  I was somewhat excited to read them sexually attracting to each other. Because they are fundamentally different with each other, their relationship was much more complex, ambiguous, and profound. And I liked that. They were bound together in no way two people of same nature can.

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the differences, that that love came: and it was the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. (248-249 : emphasis mine)

In a world of constant clashes between beliefs, ethnics and politics, the concept of ‘bond’ built on ‘difference’ is quite striking. Maybe it was ‘difference’ that forms the basis of all types of union. For example, what could be more different than a man from a woman? Yet they attract to each other, love each other, and understand each other to form a basic social union. Understanding first comes from perceiving and  recognizing a ‘difference.’  All forms of dialogue, agreement, promise, and partnership that lie within the cornerstone of our society would not be needed had we been of all same opinion, same view and identity.

The novel’s depiction of ‘ambisexuality’ is way more than interesting. When I was young, I was somewhat repulsive to the pre-destined notions of masculinity and femininity, mostly promoted by the media. I was blindly, unconsciously searching for qualities that transcend the pre-decided notions of sexuality, because too often I felt constrained in my natural-born gender. It was affecting way more areas of life than necessary–daily appearance, social manners, public safety, occupation, etc.
In this respect, the Gethenian’s system of sexuality is much more genuine and more focused on its essential role–erotic love and reproduction. Their way of mating seemed much more beautiful and sacred to the eyes of an earthling that have seen all sorts of tyrannies and violence on ‘sexuality.’ I was once again surer with the vision of fading barrier between genders would make our world a better place.

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ was a successful read, considering my relative indifference to its genre. As a result, I summoned a copy of another shelved text of that course–Snow Crash. With three other YA books I ordered, I sincerely doubt whether I could open that copy within this year…:)


Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace. 2010.