“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin (a review)

In this month’s episode of “Book Reviews for 50-year-old novels,” let’s look at Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness,” checking in at sixth in the Frankford Publishing Top Science Fiction Books of All-Time. Quick disclaimer, sixth is low. All the authors curated the list, but my vote for this is higher. For this reader, it’s an elite entry, along with Dune and Frankenstein as the top-three novels in the Science Fiction genre. But it’s not worth fist-fighting over. 

Were Ms. Le Guin still alive, it’s unlikely she’d care about our list. After all, “Left Hand” won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and her work is firmly part of the Western Canon. But if we rank someone’s work, we should at least have the decency to explain why. 

Most know Left Hand for presenting a world with primarily androgynous characters. At the time of publication (1969), no one had done this before, especially not in the sci-fi fantasy genre. It was groundbreaking. Left Hand was a hit and sparked almost endless debate in feminist circles. The people of the ice world Winter were experiments, genetically altered to be both male and female. It was a world without war, although Le Guin admits that the pacifism might be due to the cold as much as the unique gender setup. Have you ever tried to fight someone in the snow? 

But let’s take a step back from the world of Winter. This book takes place in the larger setting of the Hainish Cycle, which postulates that the people of Hain put forth colonies, Earth among them. The main character in Left Hand represents the Ekumen, a union of worlds all descended from the Hainish colonies. No one knows how many of these worlds there are, and when someone discovers a new one, the union sends out a welcoming party of one to see if they will join the rest. 

What I like about this future history setup is that it’s a case of “Rare Earth Theory” or, in this case, “Rare Hain Theory.” The idea is that space-faring intelligent life, even on par with lowly humans, needs a specific set of circumstances to evolve: 

  • water
  • an atmosphere
  • some dry land
    • (it can’t all be water, or you never get fire or eventually rockets)
  • moderate temperature
  • not too much gravity
  • a rather large moon that deflects “planet killers” and creates tides
  • a magnetic field due to a core of iron 

It’s a long list of requirements, and for all the work that telescopes have done, scientists have yet to find another planet meeting all those conditions.  

The typical reasoning in favor of aliens states that there are so many stars, so many planets. There has to be another form of intelligent life out there. Yet while there are so many stars, and the galaxy is unfathomably vast, we still have no evidence of developed alien life. Might there be a puddle of viruses somewhere? Sure. But aliens in their spaceships remain a fever dream. This is the Fermi Paradox, and until someone finds proof of complex life, it reigns unchallenged.

The Hainish stories of Le Guin take place in a galaxy where there might be many expressions of gender but only one type of known intelligent life. Granted, Earth isn’t so rare if another Earth called Hain is out there. Still, to have an account spanning the Milky Way but only have humans is a bold choice for an author.

So what, one might ask, there are no aliens in this science fiction story. Why is that such a big deal? Aliens are fundamental building blocks of almost every story involving space—books like Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers pit humanity against bugs. The visual franchises of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Futurama all involve an infinite variety of intelligent life. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Frankford Publishing’s first book, Noisy Alien Communicator.

Le Guin wrote seven Hainish novels and staked her claim about humans in the galaxy. We are all alone. Isn’t that the scariest twist of them all? It’s a vast departure from most other sci-fi writers. It’s speculative fiction, a.k.a. science fiction minus aliens. Other significant works at least agnostic to the existence of aliens include the Robot and Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and more recently, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.

It’s not all bulletproof hard science fiction in Left Hand. The ansible (an instant communication device) is hand-wavy science magic rather than hard science fiction. 

But in a step more severe than Asimov and Star Wars, the characters in the Ekumen union cannot travel beyond the speed of light. It takes the protagonist 17 years to get to Winter; like the people there, he spends all that time frozen. Suspended Animation, Rare Earth theory, and “Speed of Light as a hard limit” are depressing but realistic tropes in Le Guin’s expert worldbuilding. The result is a tone of solemn loneliness. It’s not an Arthur C. Clarke watchmaker world or Douglas Adams-type party. It’s a setting where there are 80 other populated worlds, all in a union. The distances make trading nearly anything but information impossible. And sending a character like Genry Ai to Winter means all the people he ever knew or loved would be dead by the time he returned. It’s a long walk across that ice. 

It’s a fun but dense read, and I’ve done so twice in preparation for this review. Each time you take a closer look, more details pop out. So many random thoughts emerge. Is this also part of a fantasy genre? The characters spend most of the book cow-towing to kings, hauling sleds over ice, and laboring in a work camp. Squint, and you might see dragons. Is the temperature of the planet Winter a metaphor for the temperament of the people who live there? Why did Le Guin use the pronoun “he” to describe all the androgynous characters? 

That last one wasn’t my question. It was the cause of much debate at the time of publication. Le Guin resisted inventing a new set of pronouns, but she certainly thought about it. At age 85, she reported being “haunted and bedeviled by the issue of the pronouns.” Much like Le Guin’s book, my review can’t help but revisit this groundbreaking idea of how she handled gender. And she made a masterpiece using those ideas. But the excruciating detail in the worldbuilding and the care she takes describing these characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings make this work more than a thought experiment. Left Hand of Darkness lives in the bookstore’s Science Fiction/Fantasy section, but it’s not a trashy space opera. Her complex quality writing is as good as any literary fiction. 

VERDICT: Rare Book for a Rare Earth, two human opposable thumbs way up.

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