The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterwork

by Keith Purtell

Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuinn

The central dilemma of science fiction is the author's ability to convey how people might behave in outlandish situations. Most fail. But, readers are generally willing to settle for clever set design.

In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula K. LeGuin apparently started with believable people, then poured their personalities into a spectacular setting. She also sticks to the rules of good storytelling. The book meets the genre's “What if ...” criteria 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 single-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 resembles a 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.

LeGuin's world-making is fully developed here, although it’s not a planet of 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 fans have allowed them to coast for most of their careers.