Posted by Marie on Wednesday, June 02, 2010
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula Le Guin
Science Fiction; ISBN 978-0-441-47812-5; Ace Books, 1969.

Genly Ai is a Terran envoy on the ice-bound world of Gethen. He is tasked to attempt an alliance between the nations of this planet and a federation of worlds called the Ekumen. But he is literally a stranger on a strange land - not just due to the unnervingly harsh environment, but because he is a male, living among humans who have no permanent gender. Good thing he has a sponsor for his cause: the Prime Minister of the Karhide nation, Lord Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. He can't help but think though, how fortunate is he that he has Lord Estraven by his side?

I love to tell more but my friends do frown at spoilers, so let's leave the summary at that.

Winner for best novel in both the 1969 Nebula and 1970 Hugo Awards, The Left Hand of Darkness had become a science fiction classic. The novel works on many levels, so it's difficult (not to mention presumptuous) for me to discuss about all these themes. Thus, I'm going to shallowly talk about one of the themes that had struck me - duality.

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness is the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

Dualism is the belief that everything has two states: life and death, male and female, light and dark. Now, the interesting part is that the interaction between these states depends on the philosophical system you're believing/basing on. Most western philosophies (e.g. Catholicism) say that these two are in conflict, thus the eternal struggle between good versus evil, for instance. On the other hand, most eastern philosophies (let's take an example of Taoism, from which a novel-referenced symbol, the taijitu or yin-yang symbol, came from) say that despite being opposites, the two are actually interdependent, interconnected to form, if not a whole, then at least a balance.

So, is there duality in a race of androgynous humans? Genly Ai initially didn't thought so:

Ai: You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.

Estraven: We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other.

Ai: I and Thou. Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex...

(Another note: 'I and Thou' gives reference to Martin Bauber's Philosophy of Dialogue, where he claims that a person's life is meaningful only through his/her relationships. But being generally ignorant of the entire study of Philosophy (with a capital P), I certainly will leave it at this.)

A large-scale manifestation of the conflict of "myself" and "the other" is shown via the hostilities between the nations of the increasingly 'masculine' Orgoreyn, and the still 'feminine' Karhide. This includes the petty but complicated games of politics/shifgrethor not just between the two nations, but among the different factions of the two governments. I guess I'll leave the further discussion of the book's political themes for my book club meet this June.

This conflict is shown most significantly through the internal struggles of Genly Ai. He had stubbornly and half-unconsciously clung to his cultural stereotypes, and therefore had been gravely blinded to the one whom he should have trusted the most. The novel thus can be seen as Genly Ai's re-education (or as the Haddarata would say it, the return to ignorance); his final acceptance -and yes, even love - of the other's "otherness".



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le guin is one of my favorite novelists. have you tried her the dispossessed? \:)


Not yet, but it's shortlisted in my very tall to-be-read pile. But I heard it's more political than Left Hand of Darkness. Is it really?

indeed it is. it gives quite an impressive and vivid account of how a society emancipated from capitalist and feudal social relations would work


Intriguing. And I thought that it is just one more criticism of the then Vietnam War. Thanks for the input, will read it soon then.

oh man, another great review of le guin, and i have yet to pick up my first. what would you recommend as the first to read, marie?

and ... i just gave you an award!!! go get it!


did my comment get thru? if not, i just gave you this spankin' wonderful award:

Hi aloi! There had been a lot of spammers targeting my comment page so I've set this to moderated to filter them out. Thanks for the award! Mwah! :)

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