After twenty-six different Hugo and Nebula winning awards over the course of seventeen years, we finally get a work by a female author. And, it is, well, rather different, which is appropriate considering that this novel is all about the role of sex and gender in society.
Ursula K. LeGuin is the daughter of a rather famous California anthropologist, Arthur Kroeber, and she brings a lot of social science into her science fiction (which, as a result, generally gets labeled “soft science fiction” in opposition to the “hard science fiction” that dwells on the physical sciences).
The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen (a benevolent federation made up of the various related human species descended from the ancient Hainish civilization – this includes Ai’s homeworld of Earth). Ai resides on the ice age planet Gethen (also known as Winter), as he tries to convince the planet’s hermaphroditic population to trade with Ekumen. He begins in a monarchy called Karhide, but palace intrigues drive him to a neighboring bureaucratic prison-state. These two nations share a lot of characteristics with the US and USSR, respectively, and there is a Cold War analogy at work here, though neither side comes off well. Ai narrates much of the novel, and the center of the novel is really his observations of gender in a society where people are sexless most of the time and can assume either partner's role at various times in their lives. We also get the insiders’ view, as an important politician and sometimes ally of Ai’s named Estrevan narrates other portions of the novel. And there are a handful of nicely-rendered folktales from Gethen recorded in the book that further illustrate the society’s workings.
It’s a rich text, and LeGuin’s prose is as good as anyone I’ve discussed so far (it most reminds me of Frank Herbert’s weighty, mythological style in Dune, but it's far less stilted). She creates several compelling societies within the framework of the frigid and sexually fluid Gethen, and we see a wide variety of sub-cultures, from courts to mystical oracles. I didn’t always agree with Ai’s characterization of gender on Earth, but LeGuin is writing from a male perspective in these observations, and they do change subtly over the course of the novel. In the end, the book poses more questions than it answers about how gender shapes individual identities and societies as a whole, which is probably for the best.
It takes some time for the plot to get rolling, but once it does, it’s page-turning stuff, and includes rich character development including an intriguing and moving relationship. This is a great novel that I highly recommend. We’re going to see a lot more of LeGuin over the next forty years of awards, and I’m very much looking forward to it now.