If you’re not a science fiction reader you may not have heard of this author, and maybe those of you who aren’t are already preparing to skip past this post. Indulge me for a moment though, step into another world of writing. Why? For all the usual reasons we have for reading.
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
So says Genly Ai, at the start of The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is an envoy for Ekumenical Scope, an alliance of eighty-three habitable planets, trying to invite the world of Winter to join them in interplanetary trade.
Is it other worlds that bother non-science fiction readers? If so, think of Le Guin as your holiday guide to Winter. She’ll provide you with views of the local customs and some of the most interesting characters, explain the history and culture through a variety of voices, leaving you to read between the lines – if you choose.
The drawing of comparisons, the tracing of a ‘proper…equivalent’, is what strangers in strange lands do. So, we mostly follow Genly, yet Genly is not quite us either: his Earth, we gradually realise, is not our Earth. It sounds utopian, with its ability to deal honestly, and it’s codes of conduct. He seems a sophisticated contrast to the suspicions and fears of Winter.
Winter is in an ice-age.
Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh. The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during those thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity and other principles, but they do not install them in their houses. Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept warm in tents, who being released get frostbitten feet. I, however, a tropical bird, was cold; cold one way outdoors and cold another way indoors, ceaselessly and more or less thoroughly cold.
If the story were told only by Genly, it would be a simple tale. Instead it’s threaded through with reports from earlier visitors; fragments of Winter history and the events experienced by Estraven, a seasoned politician, ‘one of the most powerful men in the country’.
When this novel was published in 1969, it became part of the feminist debate about gender, sex, culture and society. Forty-eight years later the central premise, of a race that is androgynous, and remain that way ‘when kept alone’, and that ‘normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role….do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter’, seems to fit with contemporary debates around gender definitions and identities.
Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.
There’s more though. This novel investigates displacement and asylum issues. On some levels, it examines atrocities of the past, but in doing so, it shines a light on what is happening now.
Le Guin’s use of two narrators forces us to think about what divides or unites them.
Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible. How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space? It was all nonsense…my own explanations were preposterous. I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.
Reading back through this post, I notice that I’ve been so busy presenting the subtleties that I’ve failed to tell you it is a story of incident, of movement and conflicts. Worthy as all of the above arguments are, the real reason for reading this book is because it hooks you. I hope it might, science fiction fan or not.