The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in 1969.
The book is one of the first major works of feminist science fiction. It won the 1969 Nebula and 1970 Hugo awards. Plans for a feature film and video game based on the books were announced by Phobos Entertainment Holdings in 2004, but appear to have since stalled.
The Left Hand of Darkness
is the account of the efforts of a man named Genly Ai, a representative from a galactic federation of worlds (the Ekumen
), who seeks to bring the world of Gethen
into that society. It forms part of a series of books by Le Guin all set in the fictional Hainish
The inhabitants of Gethen are androgynes, biologically hermaphroditic humans; for twenty-four days of each twenty-six day lunar cycle they are biologically neuter, and for the remaining two days (kemmer) are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children.
The story opens in the feudal kingdom of Karhide, where the two primary characters, Genly Ai, a representative of the benevolent information-exchange driven society of the Ekumen, and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide, are introduced. In the second part of the book, the story moves to the centralized totalitarian state of Orgoreyn, where Genly is accepted as a means to an end by an Orgota political faction. The differences between these two states and the reactions of Genly, Estraven, and other characters in the book provides insights into the motivations of Genly and the Gethenian characters. During the third part of the book, Estraven saves Genly from imprisonment, and they travel together across the glaciers connecting Orgoreyn and Karhide.
At the opening of the story, Genly distrusts Estraven, understanding that Estraven is his patron but unable to understand Estraven's motives. Shortly before Genly speaks with the King about joining the Ekumen, Estraven informs Genly that he is no longer supporting his cause. Genly interprets this as feminine intrigue, a betrayal. In fact, Estraven's own political standing was jeopardized by opposing the King in a separate political matter. Estraven's abandonment of Genly's cause was intended to protect Genly, as Estraven's own fall was imminent. Indeed, the next day, Estraven is proscribed, and must leave the country within three days or risk death. Genly, dissatisfied with his progress, also leaves the city, hoping to explore the older mythology of the Karhidish religion. Satisfied that he has seen enough of Karhide, which he believes is too irrational, he ultimately leaves for Orgoreyn.
Estraven has preceded Genly in Orgoreyn, and has encouraged one of the political parties that is out of power to support Genly's cause. At first when Genly arrives in Orgoreyn, he is pleased with the state of the country, believing it less backwards than Karhide, and more ready to accept the Ekumen. Gradually as Genly stays in Orgoreyn, he begins to feel as if he is not seeing everything, as if what he is seeing is a dishonest representation. Genly becomes a liability to the political factions that have been sheltering him up to this point in Orgoreyn. For their own political well-being, they give Genly up to a faction less well-disposed to Genly, the Sarf, and Genly is sent to a prison work farm, where he reacts badly to the drugs he is given by the guards.
Estraven uses all available resources to gather materials and information, and rescues Genly. Genly is astonished that Estraven has done this for him in the face of his open distrust of Estraven. As Estraven observed, Genly trusted everyone but
Estraven despite Estraven's constant support of Genly and Genly's mission. They decide that they must leave Orgoreyn, but they cannot be around people because they lack the required identifying papers. They decide to travel across the glaciers from Orgoreyn into Karhide, an 800-mile journey that will take them, Estraven guesses, over three months. During their journey across the ice, Estraven and Genly grow to be good friends and eventually feel a strong bond of love. Shortly after they arrive in Karhide, Estraven is shot and dies. Genly is taken to the King, who at this point is ready to join the Ekumen.
The relationship between the two main characters is complex. Estraven sees Genly's mission as a path to a better future, but Estraven also likes Genly as a person. On the other hand, Genly mistrusts Estraven for some time. Estraven and Genly together decide that sex is not a good choice, because the only time Estraven becomes totally female is during the crossing of the glacier. There is a previous sexual episode during the trip from an Orgoreyn city and one of their "voluntary farms," as a young Orgota Gethenian enters Kemmer and is attracted to Genly. Genly however does not mate with the person, though the specific reason is not disclosed.
Estraven is actually celibate at the time of the story, remembering past sorrows and avoiding sex with Gethenians who offer it. To avoid this awkwardness, Estraven tries to minimize contact with Genly when Estraven goes into kemmer while the two are alone together on the ice.
The novel is only in part about sex and gender; other themes are also significant. For instance, neither Genly nor Estraven engage in violence during the course of their adventures. Estraven is definitely ready to do so, contemplating violence when in need of a boat that someone else has. But in practice the need never arises. Estraven later does commit theft, taking an unoccupied boat and later stealing supplies for the trip across the ice, but never engages in physical violence. Genly as an Envoy is required to come alone and unarmed, but it is not said that he can't fight using local weapons. He is never in a situation where there would be any sense or advantage in doing so. This careful attitude towards characters' use of personal violence is typical of Le Guin's science fiction from this book onwards.
Genly suspects that Estraven's death was suicide, the ultimate sacrifice to help Genly and his mission. While Genly sees suicide as a valid individual choice, he feels guilty that it may have been for his benefit. Suicide is also regarded as a major crime by the Karhiders, so its likely use by Estraven was received differently in Karhidish culture.
Throughout the novel, there are short creation myths and legends, explaining the psychology of the Gethenians and illuminating Estraven's unspoken past. One story discusses the place inside the storm, a quiet haven within a blizzard. One story discusses the roots of the Yomeshta religion. One is an ancient Handara creation myth. One discusses what a traitor is (the story concerns an ancestor of Estraven), and so on.
The inhabitants of Gethen are androgynes, biologically hermaphroditic humans; for twenty-four days of each twenty-six day lunar cycle they are biologically neuter, and for the remaining two days (kemmer) are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children. Throughout the novel Gethenians are described as 'he' whatever their role in kemmer. This was also the case in the unrelated Gethenian short story Winter's King when it was originally published; but in the interests of equity, when she republished it in her collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Le Guin rewrote it so that all Gethenians are referred to as 'she'.
Physically, the Gethenians are mostly brown, but with a lot of variation. They do not have beards, but their breasts are only a little larger than those of human males. The Envoy from Earth, Genly, who is darker skinned than most of the Gethenians, can pass for a native while wearing normal clothing: the same was true of earlier observers who hid their identity. Genly has had his face modified so he can no longer grow a beard, though he later learns that some Gethenians are hairy. He is very tall by Gethenians standards; most Gethenians are shorter than the typical human.
The Gethenians were genetically engineered for this characteristic long ago, by the original Hainish civilization, who planted colonies on many worlds, including Earth. That culture collapsed, and the Ekumen has only limited knowledge of their actions and motivations. The Gethenians might have been made the way they were to maximize reproductive success on the harsh glaciated world of Gethen. Or perhaps the ancient biological engineers were curious about what such people would be like.
Le Guin developed this idea out of a desire to explore what remained basic to human nature when biological gender was no longer a factor. The Left Hand of Darkness is a significant milestone in the increasing sophistication of the treatment of sex in science fiction that developed in the 1970s.
At first, a large part of the novel seems to be an exploration of a neuter society — a society in which sexual difference plays no role, although love and jealousy remain. The world of Gethen has no history of war, but Le Guin has Genly Ai's narration state that the exact reason for this is unresolved. It could be due to the Gethenians' unique biology (lacking a deep sense of duality implied by strong gender divisions may cause the Gethenians lack a necessary component of nationalism
), or it could simply be a side effect of the planet's harsh climate, limiting warfare to small skirmishes by simple economics.
Also related is the far slower pace of technological development. The Gethenians are mentioned as having gone through a very slow-paced and gradual industrialization, with many semi-feudal social institutions left intact, rather than the breakneck industrial revolution which Earth experienced since the 18th Century. In one episode, it is specifically mentioned that a particular type of truck has been in use for centuries, almost unchanged, and that Gethenians feel no special need to improve on it and develop a more advanced model. Like the above, this may be related to the absence of a sharp male/female dichotomy, or may simply be a side-effect of Gethen's meager natural resources, which are deficient not only in pure raw materials, but also in certain forms of inspiration (Genly Ai speculates at one point that the Gethenian's failure to invent the airplane may be due to the planet's lack of birds).
In fact, Le Guin examines gender related questions surprisingly little, and provides even less in the way of answers. As the novel focuses instead on in-depth examination of curiously toned-down and blended distortions of subjects like Feudalism and Communism, Zen-like eastern mysticism and Christianity, this may in fact be a very subtle answer to the question of gender: "It's not important".
Gethenians in Karhide do possess an elaborate system of social prestige called shifgrethor
, in which individuals jockey for position by subtle maneuvering — the exact kind of social conflict seen in homogeneous groups (compare office politics
). The demonization of others is artificial and temporary; alliances
shift easily, and prevailing cultural mores are determined and protected by the next clearest division between groups - geography.
Nations exist, and different places have different societies, but they blend at the edges. Low level raiding of indeterminate value preserves a sense of hostility and division that is useful for internal political purposes, but there is little real desire to actually conquer another nation. Indeed, the concept of full-scale war is unknown to Gethenian societies. But it seems possible that Gethen is now drifting towards a war between Karhide and Orgoreyn.
The book features two major religions: the Handdara, an informal system reminiscent of Taoism and Zen buddhism, and the Yomesh or Meshe's cult, a close-to-monotheistic religion based on the idea of absolute knowledge. Handdara is more archaic and dominates in Karhide, while Yomesh is an official religion in Orgoreyn. The difference between them underlies political distinctions between the countries and cultural distinctions between their inhabitants. Estraven is a follower of Handdara, which motivates many of his actions.
Both Genly and Estraven face continuous difficuties when ties of loyalty contradict. Both are ready to be ruthless to see Gethen join the Ekumen: Genly thinks he is entitled to sacrifice personal ties to this end. Both also are ready to risk their own lives, thinking that dying doesn't much matter if some good end is obtained.
Communication and Understanding
Genly is on Gethen to communicate the desire of the Ekumen
to invite Gethen to join it. The invitation is because the Ekumen wants to communicate with Gethen -- exchange information, achieve some understanding. Gethen is seventeen light years from the nearest planet of the Ekumen, so most trade would be impractical. The envoy has trouble communicating with the Gethenians, partly because he doesn't understand shifgrethor
, nor what their sexual system means, but also because most of the Gethenians don't believe what he says about his mission. He can communicate in real time with the Ekumen, using his ansible
. In an attempt to prove that he is, indeed, an ambassador from other civilizations, King Argaven asks him to ask his off-planet correspondents what makes a person a traitor. Although the message is received, and answered, Argaven is not satisfied with the answer.
During Foretelling, a ritual of answering questions about the future, the Foretellers communicate in a deep and fundamental way. Their temporary linkage is similar to the telepathic abilities that Genly Ai possesses. He tries, with Faxe, the Weaver of the Foretellers, and later with Estraven, to communicate telepathically, in part because he misses doing so, and in part because it is not possible to lie telepathically. He has some success with Estraven.
- Catalan: "La Mà Esquerra de la Foscor", 1985, 1997.
- Croatian: "Lijeva ruka tame", 2004 (ISBN 953-203-182-0).
- Czech: "Levá ruka tmy".
- Danish: "Mørkets venstre hånd".
- Dutch: "Duisters linkerhand".
- Estonian: "Pimeduse pahem käsi".
- Finnish: Pimeyden vasen käsi
- French: "La Main gauche de la nuit".
- German: "Die linke Hand der Dunkelheit", also known as Winterplanet (Heyne-Verlag paperback edition, translated by Gisela Stege).
- Greek: "Το αριστερό χέρι του Σκότους".
- Hebrew: "מעבר לעלטה" and later as "צד שמאל של החושך".
- Hungarian: "A sötétség balkeze", 1979 (ISBN 963 211 337 3).
- Italian: "La mano sinistra delle tenebre"
- Korean: "어둠의 왼손" 1995, 2002.
- Polish: "Lewa ręka ciemności".
- Portuguese: "A Mão Esquerda da Escuridão".
- Romanian: "Mâna stângă a întunericului".
- Russian: "Левая рука Тьмы", 1991, 1992, 1993, 1999, 2006.
- Serbian: "Leva ruka tame".
- Spanish: "La Mano Izquierda de la Oscuridad".
- Swedish: "Mörkrets vänstra hand"
- Turkish: "Karanlığın Sol Eli"