A Second Reading

Sometimes, a book is even better the second time around. This was the case with The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s one of Phillip’s favorite books, and he introduced it to me several years ago. I finished reading the novel for the second time this past weekend.

This book is wonderful.

Genly Ai is a human envoy for the Ekumen, a collective of eighty-three humanoid planets. He’s been sent to a planet named Gethen, known by the Ekumen as Winter (because it’s in a global ice age). The Ekumen has no political goals. It exists solely for the purpose of economic and intellectual trade. It does not interfere in the politics of its member planets, but will act as a mediator in disputes, if asked. (If anyone on Gethen doubts this, Genly Ai points out that the nearest Ekumen planet is seventeen years away at near-light speed. Why would anyone bother with interference?)

Genly Ai’s job is to invite Winter – or any nation on it – to join the Ekumen. In order to appear as non-threatening as possible, he, like all envoys, has been sent alone. There’s no pressure. Any nation is free to join or not. Genly is aware, however, that other envoys on other planets have been killed in acts of xenophobia.

Genly Ai has a tough job ahead of him. The humans of Gethen are ambisexual. Most of the time, they have no gender. Once a month, in a period known as “kemmer”, an adult Gethenian becomes either male or female. (They can choose the gender.) Many Gethenians have children they’ve sired and also children they’ve given birth to. For the majority of their lives, however, Gethenians are gender-neutral.

Genly can’t quite get used to a society without defined gender roles. He can never truly see a Gethenian as simply a “person”.  (The novel uses male pronouns throughout, even when the king is pregnant.) Gethenians see Genly as a “pervert” – a freak who is constantly in kemmer.

The story is told mainly from Genly Ai’s point of view. The novel occasionally switches to observations from Genly’s main Gethenian contact, a politician in the Kingdom of Karhide, named Therem Harth rem ir Estreven, and also Gethenian myths and legends collected by Genly.

The Left Hand of Darkness presents a fully-realized planet. It explains its geography, its calendar, its cultures, its quirks, and its technology. (Since the planet has never had any flying animals, the Gethenians have never conceived of flight.) But like any great science fiction, the novel is about a whole lot more than just a strange alien planet.

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