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BOOK REVIEW: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin

I read 1984 and Animal Farm in the 1960s when they were still science fiction. Now we have universal surveillance capability and judicial permission to use it, and a new, but live, real version of “newspeak.” The 2018 prophetic equivalent is, heaven help us, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

Having just returned from California, where fires are destroying one patch of the state at a time year after year, mudslides are killing dozens and shutting off roads, and the abalone season has been cancelled because the abalone are starving, I wonder why I need science fiction. Perhaps people enjoy books like The Left Hand of Darkness because it provides the illusion that human beings have a future on other planets or in other galaxies.

Not being used to reading science fiction, my eyes went googly when I read “Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hanish Cycle 93 Ekumenical Year 1490-97” What was this? Ms. LeGuin writes that “science fiction is metaphor,” but it is a particular kind of metaphor in which the reader is not observing that the sun was a golden orb or that the bull was running through the china shop, but is sharing life with a character in a metaphorical universe, the way we all went down the rabbit hole to live in Wonderland for a while.

The main character is Genly Ai, an Envoy from Earth, or Terra, who has been sent to the planet Winter, or Gethen, where things are very different. The weather is fiercely cold and has been for so long that the Gethenians’ bodies have adapted. When traveling across an icy landscape in subzero temperatures, the Gethenian takes off his shirt and Genly Ai, the Terran, is suffering frostbite.

Time is stood on its head. People can “time jump,” measured in light years, through Ai’s “ansible,” a device for communicating instantly with distant galaxies. It is always the Year One, and “the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary.” This results in different attitudes: “Terrans tend to feel they’ve got to get ahead, make progress. The people of Winter, who always live in the Year One, feel that progress is less important than presence.” It sounds kind of like Italy.

LeGuin leaves no earthly expectation untouched, making her characters gender fluid. Ai says “Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters.”  Not exactly neuters. When in kemmer, a sort of uncontrollable estrus, a man’s organs retreat inside, and he becomes a woman capable of pregnancy. In fact, the pregnancy of King Argaven throws a curve into the plot. The obsessiveness of kemmer is allowed for in Gethen by giving workers that one-sixth of their life off for sex. The permanently arouseable Terran is considered a Pervert, and that made me laugh.

The story addresses the effects of gender and time on behavior and thinking, and also the effects of gender on governance. “Quarrels, murders, feuds, forays, vendettas, assassinations, tortures and abominations, all these were in their repertory of human accomplishments; but they did not go to war. They lacked, it seemed, the capacity to mobilize. They behaved like animals, in that respect; or like women.” LeGuin sometimes makes philosophical jumps like this one—in our real world, have we proven that women would not make war? Are women, but not men, akin to “animals?” Here’s what Genly, the Terran, thinks “feminine” means:  “[King] Argaven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted…I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture in him.” And later, “Damning his effeminate deviousness….” Well! There were several times, like this one, where LeGuin overreached, and the invitation to suspend my disbelief weakened.

She challenges our assumptions regarding time, weather, distance, gender, governance, and there is only an amorphous mystic religion, so perhaps she changes our expectations regarding that, too. But in the end, this book is a metaphor for the earthly human condition.  LeGuin has King Argaven (the “soft and supple” guy) say, “I fear liars, and I fear tricksters, and worst I fear the bitter truth. And so I rule my country well. Because only fear rules men. Nothing else works. Nothing else lasts long enough.” King Argaven might as well be President Trump or Vladimir Putin.

LeGuin’s imagination remains, in the end, solidly within the boundaries of known humanity. She has not introduced us to any interior territory we are not familiar with.

The Left Hand of Darkness  gives us an opportunity to view ourselves afresh, and in that way, it is stimulating and fun. But all the strange vocabulary, weather, time, gender, and social difference of the planet Winter did not take me far from the mirror. Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, and 1984 took me into more frightening and uncomfortable worlds, and they happened close to home.