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This was the 17th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in May 2020.
Times they were a-changin' in the sixties. The first sixteen winners of the Hugo for Best Novel were all written by white American men, and only eleven of them, because Leiber, Zelazny and Heinlein were repeat winners. In 1969, the first foreigner won, but even though John Brunner was British, he was a white man too. It took until 1970 for a woman to win and the writer to break that glass ceiling was Ursula K. Le Guin.
I've read Le Guin before, but only the Earthsea trilogy, books she wrote for children, even though they contain depths to grow with. They all make sense to us as kids, but they grow in meaning as we become adults and realise that the world is much bigger than we ever thought possible. I've wanted to read her adult work for a long time and I'm happy that this project has given me that opportunity.
The Earthsea books are fantasy and so is this in many ways, even though it's given a strong science fiction context that I now realise runs a lot broader than this one novel. It functions admirably as a standalone, but it's also a part of something bigger, what's become known, with serious misgivings by Le Guin, as The Hainish Cycle, which wider body of work provides answers to at least some of the questions I asked here without reply.
On the fantasy side, we follow an outsider on a quest within a society that reminds us of the mediaeval era. There are mystic elements and eventually a long and dangerous adventure across a volcano-ridden ice sheet, an approach that goes at least as far back as Jules Verne. I wonder if Lord of Light, a Hugo winner only the previous year at the time Le Guin was writing, had any impact on her taking this direction.
On the science fiction side, this is a "bring them into the fold" story, the next step after first contact when a interstellar civilisation does what it can to bring a newly discovered planet into its expansive community, an act that would introduce great technological advances. However, it doesn't take the Alan Dean Foster approach, Le Guin less interested in flora or fauna and much more interested in how she can explore a society with major differences to our own.
And those differences are the key reason for this to be seen as special. Let me backtrack and ground you. Our interstellar civilisation is the Ekumen and it encompasses 83 different planets. The 84th may be Gethen, to which Genly Ai, a human envoy, is sent to explain the situation and attempt to obtain an agreement from the locals to join the Ekumen. He does so on his own, because a key goal is to not be perceived as an invasion.
So, while Ai is not the first human to visit Gethen, he's the first to tell its inhabitants who he is and he's the first to spend a great deal of time there. We join him maybe a year into his mission, spent in the monarchistic realm of Karhide, at a point when it seems to be doomed to failure. When he finally gets the opportunity to present his case to the king, he finds that his key supporter, the prime minister, has been exiled and the king rejects him outright. Off he goes to the neighbouring country of Orgoreyn, to start all over again.
Much of what makes this book work is caught up in the relationship between Ai and Estraven, that exiled prime minister. More specifically, it's in the way that Ai doesn't trust Estraven, though he gradually comes to realise he has been helping him all along. And here's where those differences come into play, because they're fundamental but often subtle. Even a year into what is a dedicated mission, Ai has failed to grasp how much differences in biology and culture have affected everything.
You see, while I used the pronoun "he" for Estraven, as Le Guin does during the entire book, the people of Gethen are of no fixed gender. They are both male and female and they spend most of their time an androgynous mixture of the two. However, every month they enter kemmer, at which point they become sexually active, their biology taking on one or other of the genders at that point without any real choice in the matter.
This is a fascinating concept, because Le Guin explores it in many different directions, some of them obvious but some surprisingly subtle. For instance, it's hard to have prejudice between genders when everyone has the same bits. The king of Karhide becomes pregnant at one point here and loses the child, which experience kind of destroys the possibility of a patriarchy. However, Le Guin suggests that war is impossible in such a world and that's enticing to ponder, as is the author's original position: she "eliminated gender, to find out what was left".
Perhaps just as important, though partly stemming from the gender scenario, is the concept of "shifgrethor", with which I appropriately struggled along with Genly Ai. As I understand it, it's a set of social rules of behaviour that govern interaction on Gethen, deeper than we might associate with, say, "etiquette". Because Ai doesn't grasp it either, he fails to understand the level of support that he's got from Estraven and it takes most of the book, including that months long journey on the ice, to truly figure that out.
Neatly, Ai changes over the course of the novel by going native in ways that again he doesn't understand. His biology doesn't change—and the locals call him a "pervert" as they don't understand how someone can be continuously in kemmer—but he gradually shifts from a traditionally male viewpoint based on rationality to a traditionally female one based on emotion. Only after he's shed his preconceptions of men and women, can he truly begin to understand Estraven and the people of Gethen, who are neither and both.
There's a lot more here than merely two themes. The Left Hand of Darkness is not a particularly long novel, my Ace paperback over at three hundred pages, but it's a notably rich book in themes and ideas. There are some neat ideas tied to interstellar expansion that I hadn't seen before. The old faithfuls of politics and religion are explored, both of them flavoured by gender and shifgrethor. And there's a strong focus on loyalty and betrayal, especially when either can be misconstrued because of lack of cultural knowledge. Any attempt to explore all of those in detail would warrant a thesis and I'd be surprised if a number have been written on this book.
I enjoyed this a lot more than the last couple of Hugo winners, though both Lord of Light and Stand on Zanzibar have stayed with me. This is likely to stay much longer and prompt a lot more thought. Unlike those two novels, it reads easily, even when it takes sidesteps as it does reasonably often. We get chapters from Estraven's perspective and others that simply recount old myths or tales that, with thought, gain relevance and deepen understanding. However, even though it reads easily, it's deep and rich and quite obviously worthy.
I'll return to Le Guin in five months time, because she won another Hugo for The Dispossessed in 1975, making her not only the first female winner in the Best Novel category but the second. Two others would follow her within that decade. Next month, though, it's a novel that I've read and enjoyed before, Larry Niven's Ringworld, though it's been maybe thirty years since I dipped into it last.
Last update: 17th May, 2020