Genly Ai is an envoy, a traveler and explorer if you will. He is from the planet Hain and is now a guest, of sorts, on the planet of Winter or Gethen as it’s known by its inhabitants. He is on Winter solely on a mission of discovery, there is no malice in his mission but he finds resistance. The Gethenians are reluctant to believe that he is from another planet even with the physical differences readily visible between him and the Gethenians.
The Gethenians are a genderless race. When, and as needed, they can become either male or female. Genly has trouble with the concept and the individuals on Winter think of him as a freak constantly stuck in the state of kemmer — the time when Gethenians transform to mate. This difference is almost impossible to overcome as Genly, a male of his race, can’t comprehend the idea of kemmer and the switching of genders for mating purposes but yet he is fascinated by a people he can’t understand. When he makes a journey with one Gethenian who becomes a close friend, Estraven, he comes to an understanding of the people even if he finds some of their customs strange.
I had some trouble with this read. Maybe trouble is the wrong word. I felt like I was a bystander. It was like reading a report and in many ways it is. There are reports by Genly and stories of the Gethenians history as well. It’s very unemotional, even the emotional parts of the story felt that way to me.
While I was reading I came across a column by author Joe Walton — Some Thoughts on Anthropological Science Fiction as a Sub-Genre. She talks about a single traveler meeting up with a new culture and the results. It’s a fascinating article. You should read it. It changed the way I was thinking of this book and maybe gave me a better idea of what I was reading. It didn’t change my mind about it but just made me look at it with a new eye toward what the author was trying to accomplish. It’s very effective looking at it in a new light and that helped me appreciate the story more.
In many ways, it’s a look at how we as humans view gender and what it means to be a man or a woman and the expectations — societal and personal — that go with those thoughts. This is a topic I’ve read absolutely nothing about and am speaking only from my own personal point of view. I could understand Genly’s inability to comprehend the idea of becoming another gender during sex. Gender is who we are and how we define ourselves in society. It’s more than a difficult idea to grasp but unlike Genly, I think I would be interested in being able to switch genders to see what other life experiences would be like. I was sort of letdown by an explorer who didn’t seem interested in seeking new experiences. He does try but never gets there and, yes, part of the story is about his shortcomings but he’s certainly more a traveler than an explorer to me.
Science fiction is a means of exploring topics uncomfortable or incomprehensible to us. Looking at this novel from that perspective makes it fascinating, but it doesn’t make me like the book more because of it. It’s almost as if I have a neutral feeling about it. It’s weird because part of this story was wonderfully fascinating in the ideas it was exploring and at other times it felt flat. Considering this is a book about a space traveler I found this funny in a weird sort of way. Shouldn’t everything be fascinating to an explorer? Shouldn’t he want to see and experience everything possible?
Even though I’m feeling neutral in terms of whether or not I like this book, I do think it was worth the read. It’s not my first Le Guin; I read the Earth Sea books many years ago. The Left Hand of Darkness was completely different than I remember those books. It won’t change my opinion of the Earth Sea books but it has made me think differently about Le Guin and that’s refreshing.
The Left Hand of Darkness
By Ursula Le Guin