The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Mention science-fiction or fantasy to someone who’s not a fan and you’re most likely to be met with a puzzled frown or a groan along the lines of

It starts on the 44th diurnal of of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odharhahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One.

Have I lost you yet? That is actually from the first chapter of this challenging and uncompromising novel. The Left Hand of Darkness is the kind of thing that people use to ridicule Sci-Fi for being wilfully obtuse. There is even worse which I didn’t copy out because I thought my spellchecker might rebel and automatically switch to some obscure language with only a handful of speakers left.

The Left Hand of Darkness

However, persevering through those incomprehensible pages of gibberish does lead to a fascinating book, indeed, one of the acknowledged classics of the genre.

Genly Ai is an envoy of an advanced branch of humanity which has colonised several planets. Other groups of humans live on less developed worlds with no knowledge of their intergalactic relatives. Ai’s role is to arrive as a sole agent and prepare the ground for First Contact: the shock that comes from discovering what lies beyond known reality.

His mission is met with reluctance and fear. The world he is dispatched to, Winter, is split between a quasi-medieval kingdom and a sort of totalitarian communist state, neither of which has much to do with the other.

Nobody pays much notice to Ai either. In fact, most people disbelieve his tales of being an alien, except for the mercurial prime minister of Karhide, Estraven. The two ‘men’ strike up a firm bond, one that will lead them through superhuman feats of endurance as they struggle to survive in the frozen wastes of this primitive world.

Note the speech marks around ‘men’. The genius of this book is that the humans on the planet Winter are hermaphrodites. Or at least their sex changes from male to female depending on the season. They also go into heat – ‘kemmer’ – at certain moments, a problem for Mr Ai who is considered a pervert because to the local people, he is basically in this state nearly all the time.

This sex-shifting character of the people allows Le Guin to make sly digs at our own world and the way that women are discriminated against. Published in 1969, it still feels remarkably fresh in its insights into gender politics. As in all the best science-fiction, it is not about space or planets or ray guns or aliens. It is about us here and now and who we think we are.

The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be … “tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

The Left Hand of Darkness is philosophical and political, but it is also an adventure story, albeit one not quite as powerful as the Cold War thrillers that it emulates. It is a very rewarding read, but perhaps only one for true believers.