The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
After all the writing I’ve done on this book, one more thing sticks with me.
The main character of this book, Genly Ai, a man from Earth, is on the cold planet Gethen where humans (yes, he calls them humans) are androgynous, far in the future. Instead of being male or female, they turn so only for a couple of days of their 26 day month in a continuous cycle where they can be male or female depending on who is in their environment.
It’s a fascinating idea, a world lacking in the burden of childbearing being only on one-half of the population, no rape, and where there is no male-female duality.
But what I want to address here is that Genly Ai’s life is saved by a man whom he disliked throughout the book until the man saves his life. We are fully 2/3rds through the book before this happens. This man, Estraven, is stiff and unfriendly, in the eyes of Genly. Genly distrusts him and greatly misjudges his character.
For a main character to make this kind of mistake is a great tenet of this book. In reality (Le Guin might say “And whose reality are you referring to?”) we make these kinds of mistakes all the time. We look at someone and make a judgment and the worst of us never veer from that judgment even when faced with opposing facts.
Estraven is a forward-thinker. When all others are fighting among themselves over nation borders, he looks to the future as a member of a galactic organization and imagines:
“Our border now is no line between two hills, but the line our planet makes in circling the Sun.”
He also talks about “patriotism”:
“What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?”
And later, when he is asked a question that he cannot answer, says:
“Silence is not what I should choose, yet it suits me better than a lie.”
If only we could get away with that answer, when applicable.
Genly Ai, a good man to begin with, is greatly humbled by the end of the book, after experiencing the generosity and unbiased nature of Estraven.
The book itself is the report Genly Ai puts together for the organization that he represents, which is a terrific way of creating a book in my view. It’s a step Le Guin must have taken on the way to Always Coming Home, the novel that I will reread and post about soon, one that is basically written in text book style, a study of a future culture, and a fascinating read, as is The Left Hand of Darkness.