The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterwork

by Keith Purtell

Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuinn

Actress Carrie Fisher once joked about the difficulty she faced performing in the science-fiction movie “Star Wars.” At one point she was required to stand in front of a blank blue screen (on which special effects were to later be placed) and pretend she was seeing her home planet blown up. That’s the dilemma science-fiction writers face when they try to concoct possible realities. Most fail.

In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula K. LeGuin succeeds by sticking to the rules of good storytelling. Characters are believable and events are absorbing. It meets the “What if ...” criteria of the genre without lapsing into gimmickry.

Protagonist Genly Ai is the first envoy sent to the planet Gethen (Winter). Genly’s progress toward an understanding of the Gethen people pulls the reader along. Classically-trained LeGuin gives this sad song an operatic delivery. It’s full of messages about the obligations of friendship, and about patriotism to nation instead of government.

Poor Genly is almost overwhelmed by Gethen complexity despite extensive training for his job. At least he can leave after the assignment is complete. The Gethens must endure the weight of their own history. If Genly is cast adrift in events bigger than himself, then so is the reader; in a web of political forces and potent folklore.

Most of the action takes place in official places where Genly must conduct his diplomatic mission. Visits to homes are often awkward encounters with people who regard their one-gender guest as a kind of pervert.

The climactic event is a slow march across a vast ice sheet; an exhausting, cleansing, spiritual journey full of terrifying and beautiful images of the power of nature. We only realize near the end of the story why Genly and his Gethen ally share narrative duties: Estraven is the tragic hero. Genly’s greatest accomplishment is to honor his memory.

Despite what often looks like an east-European landscape, “The Left Hand of Darkness” is not Dr. Zhivago with space ships. The story’s particulars are too alien for that kind of frozen romanticism.

The world-making craft is fully developed here, but it’s not a planet painted in bright colors. No Alfred Bester pyrotechnics, no Harlan Ellison muscle-flexing, just the words of a graceful storyteller dipping into the well of human passion.

The seamless integration of Gethen ambisexuality into this tale marks LeGuin as both risk-taker and gifted novelist. Most writers would not have harbored such grand ambitions, much less delivered this natural performance. John Updike once referred to “The Left Hand of Darkness” as a “heart-warming story,” which is an insult, considering that he would never make such a condescending remark about a mainstream novel written at a similar high level of quality.

Often described as the greatest science-fiction novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness” is important as a landmark American book and as a kick in the pants to science-fiction writers whose overly-devoted fans have allowed them to coast for most of their careers.