The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin

I was recently gifted what many consider a SciFi classic. I had heard of it in passing several times but hadn’t gone out of my way to find it. What a mistake that was; The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic for a reason.

The basic premise is an envoy from the joint worlds comes to a planet called Winter as a representative to invite the occupants of the planet to join the 88 other worlds that are considered of social and technological advancement sufficient to warrant a place with the rest of the worlds. Two things make this planet peculiar among the rest: the climate and the nature of the occupant’s sexuality.

The planet is named aptly. The temperature rarely rises above 40C and the only habitable zone falls between 20 degrees above and below the equator. The rest of the planet is essentially matching glaciers and uninhabitable.

The envoy often refers to the race inhabiting Winter as unisexual and the races occupying the rest of the planets as bisexual. It might be more accurate to label Winter’s populace hermaphroditic. Any person on Winter can be either the father or the mother of a child. Each person has a monthly cycle of estrus where hormones begin to run wild and there are physical changes to secondary sex characteristics such as swelling of the breasts or increase in genital size and changes in shape. Two people who are beginning their cycle at the same time engage in a hormonal struggle. The winner becomes male and the loser becomes female independent of past iterations. This means that one person can sire one child and bear another later in life. It is a fascinating concept and the central one for which LeGuin is praised. Not only is it a novel approach to sexuality but she explores the social ramifications of unisexuality as well. She proposes, through the mouth of her protagonist, that war has never become a tool in the arsenal of these people because the battle of the sexes never occurred. Since there is no biological basis for ‘us vs them’, the mindset required for widespread warfare never developed. There are of course fight and battles, but no large-scale war.

Complicating the question is of course the climate which of course would dissuade any army from trying to wage a campaign, as many have discovered in the wilds of Russia. The climate also dictates a small populace which may be yet another factor in the lack of war. These complications further prod the reader into an examination of our own mindset. Do we refrain from fighting simply because we don’t have the attitude required or is it a simpler motivation of self-preservation and preservation of the species? On the other hand, the lack of inhabitable land should have sparked even more warfare than expected, right? And yet perhaps it’s that the lack of an ‘expendable’ sex that causes this unusual species an aversion to mass death.

The complexity of the issues raised by the setting provides a magnificent background for a touching story of friendship, bravery, camaraderie, and honor. Political machinations put our envoy into several difficult situations. His commitment to his goal is tested as is his faith in the few friends he has made since he arrived, alone, on this planet where he can never be really comfortable. He can never get warm enough, nor is he able to warm to the only person on the planet who believes him and wishes for his success. I kept expecting love and lust to blossom in this unusual partnership but what comes of the grueling adventure these two undergo is far more real and meaningful.

I would recommend this book to readers from high school and up. In stark contrast to such popular love stories as Twilight and its ilk, The Left Hand of Darkness presents the kind of love that is steadfast, that is earned, and that is respectful. The story itself is interesting enough to hold the attention of even young readers and encompasses concepts such as loneliness, frustration, maturity, self control, and what makes good communication. It is also complex enough to intrigue more mature readers who would like to discover interesting concepts and think interesting thoughts. I heartily recommend this book and am looking forward to reading more of her works.