Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Some books you have to go back to once in awhile and Left Hand of Darkness is certainly worth multiple visits. Published in 1969 the book is one of the most influential science fiction books from the last century.

It has been reprinted at least 30 times and luckily the edition I picked up had an introduction by the author. In it Le Guin discusses two different types of science fiction. First there’s the “extrapolative”, which many if not most readers associate with the genre. “What will happen if technology continues to develop in this direction?” it asks. Le Guin admits that this type of fiction is often apocalyptic and depressing, perhaps why some people reject reading it. This book, she says, is more of a thought experiment in the tradition of Philip K. Dick or Mary Shelley.

In the book Genly Ai travels from earth to an ice-covered planet of humans called Gethen (also called Winter because of its tremendously cold climate). This is one of many planets seeded centuries before by a race known as the Hain. (Le Guin wrote several books set in the “Hainish” universe.) Genly has been sent as a sole envoy to invite Gethen to join a coalition of around 80 planets called the Ekumen who are united mostly for trade with some loose voluntary laws. After two years of proving he is, indeed, an alien and trying to convince the planet to join the coalition he finally is able to arrange a meeting with the king of Karhide, one of the planetary nations, through the help of the prime minister, Estraven. Genly fails to convince the king to join and Estraven is exiled shortly after.

Genly decides to try to work with one of the other nations on the planet, but there he’s arrested and imprisoned by secret police. The exiled Estraven manages to pose as a guard and free him, and together they travel through the planet’s severe cold to try to reach safety.

While the surface story is interesting and well-written, what makes the book truly unique is its examination of sexuality. The Gethenians have evolved an unusual sexual pattern. Every 26 days, in coordination with the moon, they go through a hormonal transformation. Some become female and others male and they mate. If the female becomes pregnant she remains pregnant through the birth of the child. Otherwise, both return to their asexual state. This gives Le Guin an opportunity to examine the influence of sexuality on culture. Genly has assumed that the human’s constant availability for mating was one of the forces for wars and other conflicts. The Gethenians have border rivalries but war and killing are rare on the planet. These changes also put Genly into awkward situations, not always sure the people he interacts with are acting as friends or are experiencing a sexual transformation. Because of that, loyalty and personal interactions also become key themes through the book.

Le Guin is able to create unusual worlds that are different from many alien creations in science fiction, altering cultures to their very core as a way of reflecting on human values in a different light. After being in print for almost 50 years it still stands as a remarkable novel and among science fiction fans it is still regularly listed as one of the best sci-fi books of all time.