“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the left hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.”
– Tormer’s Lay, p.233-234
Some stories enter our lives as flings, escapist tales that thrill and delight but leave little lasting impact. Others are more serious fare, demanding commitment and care. The going can be frustrating and difficult, if we are receptive and the tale rings true, we can find ourselves changed in some subtle way. After all, a good story, like a good relationship, has the power to help us learn about ourselves and grow in ways we could never discover alone.
I wasn’t too impressed the first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, arguably the most influential science fiction novel of the twentieth century. The beginning was glacial in pacing (pun intended if you’ve read the book), the alternating narration was jarring, and the linear narrative I expected from the genre was constantly interrupted by side stories. Like a certain unidentified editor, I didn’t get it. I wasn’t ready.
But over the years as I returned to Le Guin’s wintry world, back to the saga of Genly Ai and Therem Harth re ir Estraven, I came to better understand this story of journey, discovering with each reading new ideas and insights. Weaknesses I once perceived paradoxically became its strengths, a fitting outcome for this book of all books, its essence being one of contrasts and reversals. Over time, I grew to accept this story; with this acceptance came love, and with this love, change evoked in how I come to see myself, others, and the world. Good stories, like good relationships, can help us do that.
Much has been written about The Left Hand of Darkness in the forty-four years since its publication; I hope to contribute in my own small way to this enormous body of work. This first piece will provide a synopsis and explore the story’s many recurring themes around dualism and holism. The post-Christmas piece will delve more into the novel’s treatment of place and myths, gender and culture, ending finally, fittingly, on the book’s exploration on partnership and love. I hope you enjoy this.
Genly Ai is an envoy of the Ekumen, a loose league of eighty three planets scattered across space. Sent to the snowbound world of Gethen, his mission is to secure alliance with its people. The story begins with Ai in Erhenrang, the capital of Karhide, one of the two major nations on Gethen. Even after two years on this alien world, Ai struggles to understand the political and cultural complexities of Gethenian society. Much of this difficulty is due to the fact that Gethenians are androgynous beings with the potential to become male or female with each mating cycle. This physiological difference profoundly shapes every aspect of Gethenian life, and makes their behaviour almost incomprehensible to Ai.
Ai’s main supporter is Therem Harth re ir Estraven, prime minister and chief advisor to the Karhidish king. Despite this, Ai doesn’t fully trust Estraven, judging her secretive and indirect. His suspicion appears justified when on the eve of his first audience with the king, Estraven informs Ai that she can no longer support his cause.
Ai’s meeting next day fares poorly. The regent is paranoid and fearful of Ai, believing him a tool for usurping his power. Ai is also stunned to discover that Estraven has been exiled for treason, and must leave Karhide within three days under threat of death. His mission in Karhide now a failure, Ai decides to leave Erhenrang and travels to the countryside, hoping to learn more about Karhidish culture.
The World of Winter. Image by Sbork.
Wandering about Karhide, Ai decides to investigate the the ancient religion of the Handdarata, and learns about the art of foretelling, a mystical practice said to accurately predict the future. He meets and befriends Faxe, one of the faith and a foreteller, who offers Ai a chance to ask a question about the future. Ai asks the most important thing on his mind: Will Gethen be part of the Ekumen within five years? The answer is yes, but Faxe warns him that the point of foretelling is to show the utter uselessness of knowing the right answer to the wrong question. Puzzled but encouraged by Faxe’s answer, Ai decides to visit Orgoreyn, the other nation of Gethen, to make his case for alliance with the Ekumen.
The story shifts to Estraven. After learning of the order of exile, she flees to Orgoreyn, barely surviving an assassination attempt by Tibe, a rival and now Argaven’s chief advisor. Estraven begins a new life, but is noticed by members of the Orgoreyn government, who take her in for counsel when Ai seeks to enter their country. Estraven argues for the envoy’s cause and convinces them to allow him entry.
Several members of the Orgoregyn Commensals, the 33 people who run the government warmly welcome Ai. Things seem to be looking up, with the only cause for concern taking the form of Estraven, who seems to be manipulating affairs in the shadows. Estraven is in reality troubled by the Sarf, a secretive faction who holds the real power in Orgoreyn and views Ai as a hoax and a political trap set by Karhide. Estraven tries to warn Ai, but Ai misunderstands her intentions and ignores her warning.
Ignorant of brewing dangers, Ai grows increasingly frustrated at the slowness of Orgoreyn bureaucracy. He asks for a public show of faith before he brings down his ship and crew to formalize first contact relations, but he is unaware that his allies have already betrayed him to the Sarf. One night, Ai is suddenly arrested by the secret police and shipped off to Pulefen Farm, a labour camp. The guards inject Ai with drugs designed to improve productivity by inhibiting the Gethenian mating cycle, but they have a toxic effect on his alien system. Ai is soon close to death.
Hearing news of Ai’s arrest, Estraven springs into action, hatching a daring plan of escape to rescue him from Pulefen. Upon recovery, Ai finally realizes that Estraven had been loyal to him and his cause the entire time, and apologizes for doubting her. Together, they attempt to return to Karhide undetected, but the safest route is the long way around: Across eight hundred miles of desolation, over the Gobrin Glacier in the dead of winter.
Across the Gobrin Ice. Image by Roger McLassus.
The journey is a harsh one. With only each other for company, Ai finally sees Estraven as she is: A man who is a woman, a woman who is a man. From this acceptance comes understanding, friendship, even love. After eighty plus days, past volcanoes, crevasses, and blizzards, they arrive together in Karhide, starving, frostbitten, but alive. As Ai goes to signal his ship to demonstrate legitimacy to his mission, a former friend betrays Estraven’s presence in Karhide to Tibe. Ai watches as his friend is shot down trying to flee back into Orgoreyn.
Back in Erhenrang, Ai finally achieves his mission: The king is now receptive to an alliance with the Ekumen, partly out of the desire to make fools out of Orgoreyn for thinking Ai a hoax. But Ai finds no solace in this success, having lost his friend and companion in the process. Faxe’s warning comes to full fruition, proving the worthlessness of having the right answer to the wrong question.
Yin and Yang: A Story of Contrast
On the Ice. Image by Astrid Nielsch at starsongstudio.com.
As I’ve discussed in past pieces, much of Le Guin’s work is shaped by the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, opposites and reversals. Nowhere is that more evident than in The Left Hand of Darkness. The more I delve into the story, the more I discover that contrasts and juxtapositions exist on almost every level. Here are a few significant ones from a narrative and worldbuilding perspective:
- Structure: The first half of the novel is political intrigue, the second half epic adventure.
- Narration: The story is told mainly from two vantage points: A man who arrives as an alien, and a native man-woman.
- Politics: The nation of Karhide is a monarchy ruled openly by a mad king; The nation of Oregoryn is a state-run bureaucracy controlled by a secret police.
- Religion: There are two major religions on Gethen. The Handdarata values darkness and uncertainty; the Yomesh cult praises light and seeing of the whole.
- Organization: Karhide society is decentralized and informal, centred around the hearth. Orgota society is centralized and rigid; the state controls its population.
- Personality: Karhiders are depicted as a chaotic and passionate people, while the Orgota are bland and passive.
Then there are contrasting themes woven into the story itself:
- Male vs. Androgyny: Ai, with his masculinity, is confronted with a race that is genderless for much of their existence.
- Treason vs. Patriotism: Estraven is branded a traitor, but in reality harbours a deep love of country and is working to its benefit.
- Joy vs. Hardship: Ai suffers from undernutrition and exhaustion from his harsh journey across the ice, but also discovers true fulfillment and joy in the process.
- Duty to the individual vs. Duty to a greater power: Both Ai and Estraven demonstrate personal loyalty to each other; both also understand the joys of greater service – Ai to the Ekumen, Estraven to Karhide.
- Fidelity vs. Betrayal: Both Ai and Estraven commit to and betray one another. Estraven rescues Ai but abandons him by effectively committing suicide. Ai, in turn, breaks his promise to Estraven to secure the alliance she died for.
- Intimacy vs. Secrecy: Ai teaches Estraven telepathy, establishing an intimacy of mind. But the act reveals the extent of the darkness within Estraven, alluding to the secret she never openly discloses.
There are many more contrasts: fear/courage, life/death, cold/warmth, female/male, progress/presence; each are embedded deep into the story and its characters (Estraven, in particular, a wonderfully complex creation). What I wish to get across is not merely pointing out the existence of these opposites in the narrative, but also explore how the story works on integrating them.
Two Halves of The Whole: Of Integration and Balance
Image from Kathy Escobar.
“It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.”
– Estraven (p. 267)
In true Taoist fashion, The Left Hand of Darkness not only highlights opposites for the sake of contrast, but stresses the necessity of accepting both extremes to realize the whole. The entire story is one of integration, on the personal, international, and cosmic level: From existing divisions towards reconciliation and balance. Returning to the list:
- Structure: The novel achieves overall balance through a first half of observation and a second half of action.
- Narration: The story gains clarity and depth when both Ai’s and Estraven’s perspectives are explored.
- Politics: Both governments on Gethen are revealed to have complementary strengths and weaknesses.
- Religion: The Yomesh cult is revealed to have originated from the Handdarata, as light emerging from darkness.
- Culture: While Karhiders and Orgota have many differences, the arrival of the Ekumen reminds them that they are also of one people.
Gethenians themselves can be seen as metaphors for wholeness, of both male and female incorporated into one, existing in balance. In her essay “Is Gender Necessary?”, Le Guin ruminates that a society full of such beings, equal in biological and social roles and responsibilities, may not suffer from the same problems that plague human societies:
“But it seems likely that our central problem would not be the one it is now: the problem of exploitation – exploitation of the woman, of the weak, of the earth. Our curse is alienation, the separation of yang from ying (and the moralization of yang as good, of yin as bad). Instead of a search for balance for integration, there is a struggle for dominance. Divisions are insisted upon, interdependance is denied. The dualism of value that destroys us, the dualism of superior/inferior, ruler/ruled, owner/owned, user/used, might give way to what seems to me, from here, a much healthier, sounder, more promising modality of integration and integrity.”
– Is Gender Necessary? Essay from The Language of the Night, p.159
It is important to note the type of integration explored in The Left Hand of Darkness is not a form of homogenization. The differences in perspective throughout the book are preserved, legitimized, and valued without being smoothed over. (Something I’ll touch on in more detail next week). One of my favourite passages from the book (and I have a lot) speaks to the importance of difference:
“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 already 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 difference between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us.”
-The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 249
I’ll stop here for now. Next week, a look at myths and landscape, biology and culture, connection and love. Season’s greetings to all.
Questions (for those who’ve read the book):
- Did you get the story the first time? Or did it take you repeated readings to understand it?
- Do you see any other contrasting ideas and themes in the story?
- For those who’ve read the book: I’ve deliberately changed the pronouns in my reference to Estraven (Le Guin uses the masculine to describe her, whereas I employed the feminine). Does it change how you perceive Estraven?
- The Left Hand of Darkness: Nature, Culture, and the Other
- Tao Today: A Sage’s Take on Modern Society, Part 1
- Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Part 2
- Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, Part 2
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on fantasy and science fiction. New York: Berkley 1982.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Penguin Group USA. 50th Anniversary Ace paperback edition.