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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Published by Ace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the biggest problems with attempting to discuss the great classics of science fiction is deciding whether to treat them from a present-day perspective or from a historicist one. Because science fiction is a literature of ideas, the great classics of science fiction are almost invariably ones that introduced a new idea to the literary landscape. Before the book came out, nobody really gave the idea much thought -- but once that book was out and made its splash, it became impossible to avoid having to give consideration to the ideas raised in that work of science fiction when writing a story or novel that touches upon those subjects. Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy may not have been the first to introduce us to a galactic empire, but it was the first to take foretelling the future out of the realm of superstitious foolery and transform it into a statistical system similar to that of weather forecasting. Larry Niven's Ringworld may not have been the first Big Dumb Object story, but it was the first that seriously broke with the assumption that advanced societies would always seek out and live on the surfaces of planets, at the bottom of gravity wells, just because the terrestrial surface was what we were familiar with.

And with The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin was one of the first writers to seriously tackle the implications of gender, and of the possibility of alternative systems of reproductive biology, on the society of a self-aware intelligent species. There had been hermaphroditic species in earlier works, to be true, but they had often been comic relief, such as Gene/Jean in the TV comedy series Quark, or they were incomprehensible Starfish Aliens such as the Elder Things in H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. Otherwise, writers generally assumed that intelligent species would have a reproductive system pretty much like humans and other mammals, in which there are two kinds of gametes, eggs with a full compliment of cytological machinery and sperm stripped down to a package of genetic material and the delivery system to get it to the egg, and that the two kinds of gametes would be produced on separate bodies, with all the implications this has for the structure of their society.

However, we need only look around us to find innumerable species that follow very different patterns of reproduction. The male seahorse broods the young while the female goes merrily along her way. The garden snail, the earthworm, and the common corn plant have both the male and the female gametes produced on the same body. Fungi such as mushrooms don't have two sexes, but instead have large numbers of mating groups, in which all gametes are of the same size, but are prevented from joining with gametes from the same mating group by a protein coat, but can join with gametes of any other mating group. Bacteria separate genetic variation from reproduction, sharing bits of DNA with one another through contact, but reproducing by binary fission.

What would happen if you had a species that seemed superficially humanlike, but instead of having the familiar neat, tidy system of males and females with their attendant social roles., proved to have one or another of those alternative reproductive patterns? How would that affect the way its society would allocate various social roles among its members? How would a human astronaut react when forced to live among them, and how would they in turn respond to having to deal with an alien system that is to us so familiar as to be like the air we breathe?

In The Left Hand of Darkness LeGuin imagines a world in which the people are superficially humanlike in appearance, but like land snails and earthworms, all members produce both eggs and sperm. This situation is possible because the novel is set within her Hainish Ekumen series, a fictional universe which is built upon a form of the Ancient Astronaut theory. In her fictional universe, the ancient world of Hain was the original home of all human-like species throughout this part of the galaxy, including those of Earth (these novels were originally written when much less was known about evolutionary biology, when it was still remotely plausible that humans might have been seeded from somewhere else and blended in with the rest of the biota of Earth, an idea also used by Larry Niven in creating his Pak breeders and Protectors). For reasons now lost in the mists of time, the Hainish scientists of that era of seeding decided to perform various experimental modifications on the people placed on some of those worlds, perhaps in hopes of seeing how those changes would affect their longterm social development

The world of Gethen is called Winter by its rediscoverers from the Ekumen because of its extremely cold climate. Obviously, that factor is going to have its effect upon the society -- we need only look at societies living near the terrestrial North Pole to see how extreme cold forces certain adaptations. However, of far greater importance is the biological difference of a species in which every individual is potentially male or female -- and that potential is regulated by a biological cycle similar to the estrous cycles found in many terrestrial mammals. For most of each month a Gethen is somer, a phase in which sexuality plays little or no part in their lives. But for a few days in each monthly cycle (which roughly coincides with the cycle of the phases of the planet's large moon, similar to how terrestrial women's menstrual cycles are about the same length as the cycles of Luna's phases), they enter kemmer. Potential becomes actual, and the two partners of a kemmering pair develop into male and female through the mutual interaction of hormones.

It is into this strange culture that Genly Ai, a Terran, comes. As an agent from the Hainish Ekumen, he bears only the instant-communication device known as an ansible and the irrefutable alienness of his own physiology as evidence he speaks truly. Otherwise, he is precluded by the terms of the Cultural Embargo from offering any other information

Until the people of Gethen accept him for what he is, he will remain there. But Gethen is not an easy world for a Terran to live upon. There is the weather, and the strangeness of the people. The king of Karhide, the major country in which Genly is staying, is mad and exiles him as an enemy.

Suddenly Genly is on the run in a strange and inhospitable land. He flees to the other major Gethen polity, Orgoreyn. While Karhide is quasi-feudal with odd little bits of surprisingly advanced technology, Orgoreyn has overtones of an Orwellian totalitarian state. Of course one must remember that, when Le Guin was writing this novel, the Soviet Union was still very much a going concern and very much in the business of imprisoning dissidents in psychiatric hospitals and giving them psychotropic drugs on the basis that anyone who didn't accept the value of Marxism-Leninism had to be clinically insane

Given those circumstances, it's hardly surprising that Genly's trip to Orgoreyn soon turns very bad and he's arrested and sent to a prison camp straight out of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. However, there's one very nasty twist -- given the nature of Gethen reproductive biology and the small population of these prison camps, having an inmate go into kemmer could be very disruptive. Since the people of Orgoreyn have developed some understanding of their hormonal system and how to manipulate it, they have developed an injectable drug that prevents the cycling, locking each inmate (and apparently each guard as well) into somer phase.

However, these shots are extremely disruptive to Genly's human reproductive hormonal balance, resulting in systematic endocrine disruption and resultant decline in his physiological health. Although Genly tries time and again to protest that he is not Gethen, that his biology is different and the shots are making him ill, orders are orders. The procedure is that all inmates must receive their monthly shots, and there can be no exceptions, not even on humanitarian grounds. So Genly becomes steadily more and more ill, and even the obvious evidence of his illness produces no willingness to relent.

It is interesting that this profound condemnation of the totalitarian state and of the abuses of the prison system for political purposes should come from an author that is generally seen as left of center, who might have been expected to be generally more sympathetic to systems such as the Soviet Union. Yet there is a logic to it -- just as only Nixon could go to China, only someone sympathetic to the ideals of socialism can write the most telling condemnation of it. It is all too easy for the person on the right to end up producing caricatures of evil, assuming that of course anyone who would believe in socialism must necessarily be either deluded or out to carry out some malicious agenda. But someone who has some sympathy for the high ideals of socialism, the search for the preservation of the common good for everyone, can write the fiercest condemnation of what happens when good intentions go terribly awry and founder on the flaws of human nature, and particularly tendencies toward power-seeking and empire-building. After all, George Orwell, author of some of the most potent condemnations of Marxism-Leninism, was himself a socialist.

However, Le Guin is not writing a grim story of innocence betrayed and crushed. Rather than staying until he declines too far and dies, Genly Ai decides to take desperate measures and escapes the prison camp. Perhaps it is simply the fact that, as an Earthman, he just doesn't realize just how deadly the climate of Gethen is, and thus doesn't bear upon his mind the invisible chains the guards count on to bind the locals and prevent escape attempts.

And thus the novel enters the final phase, in which Genly Ai and the Karhide aristocrat Estraven form an unlikely partnership that turns a grim story into a very positive one. And yes, there is a happy ending, although sometimes one might wonder if it's a little too optimistic.

As I was re-reading this novel, I realized that when I first read it, I'd read the name of the protagonist as just a made-up sfnal name. But now, having become aware of the travails of the dissident Chinese architect Ai Wei Wei, I realize that the protagonist is almost certainly Chinese, and if his name were Romanized in a more typical Pinyin fashion, it would probably be spelled Jin Li Ai. Yet again, a classic rewards re-reading in a completely unanticipated manner.

Review posted October 8, 2014.

Buy The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace Science Fiction) from Amazon.com

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