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Literature: The Left Hand of Darkness

"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."

A 1969 Science fiction novel from Ursula K. Le Guin telling the story of Genly Ai of Earth, the Envoy of the Ekumen, to the planet Gethen. Gethen is far from the rest of the planets on which the ancient Hain settled much of humanity. Gethen, which has been nicknamed 'Winter' by the Terrans, is a cold, glacial planet, but its real peculiarity is in the people: Gethenians are Gender Benders, and it has a profound effect on their society.

Genly Ai's task is to persuade Gethenians to join the Ekumen, but they're unreceptive, while tensions between the nations of Orgoreyn and Karhide grow and the first war ever on Gethen is looming on the horizon...

Tropes appearing in The Left Hand of Darkness:

  • Alternative Calendar: Karhide uses a calendar in which the current year is always "Year One", with only years before and after being numerated. It is a bit problematic, thus they refer to well-known events (like kings' ascension to throne) to record history. The followers of Yomeshta religion, however, have a calendar of the usual type.
  • Asexuality: Gethenians when not in kemmer are not only sex/gender-neutral, but also effectively asexual - and only about 1/4 of (adult) life is spent in kemmer. Kemmer, on the other hand, is a rather more desperate state than humans normally experience, to the point where it automatically gets you off work.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Gethenians see no problem with sibling-sibling incest - while in "kemmer" a Gethenian is in an almost-Mate or Die situation, so they're forgiving when you're a horny teenager and the only also-in-kemmer person around is your sibling (though monogamous incest is seen just as we see it, and the lovers are expected to part ways when the first kid appears). On the other hand, theft is a horrible crime, since on an Ice World you may just be sentencing someone to death by starvation, and a suicide is seen with distaste as a kind of cowardice, an act of refusal to face reality.
    • On a personal level, Genly considering some things feminine in a rather derogatory way (see for example Multitasked Conversation below). Le Guin is a well-known feminist, and the main character remains sympathetic rather than being a Straw Misogynist.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Tibe's heavily broadcast rants against foreigners etc., and his sneaky ascent against Estraven.
  • Evil Chancellor: Zigzagged. At first, the Chancellor is a decent guy person serving the insane King, but is soon replaced by a properly evil one. Of course, both the insane king and Genly initially think Estraven is evil.
  • Enigmatic Minion: Genly's view of Estraven is pretty close to this for most of the book
  • Exposition: done through fictional documents on Gethenian society or transcripts of local legends, and inner monologue of Genly.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Gethenians' reaction to Genly's permanent maleness, and, conversely, his reaction to their gender bending. Some Gethenians are permanently male or female, but this is regarded much as intersex conditions typically are in our society - worse, in fact, since generally more obvious.
    • Such "perverts" do however play an essential role in the Handdara religion due to their role in foretelling, as do the mentally ill: a Handdaran foretelling is made by a group of nine which includes "perverts", celibates, "zanies", at least one person in kemmer, and the "weaver", who joins their psychic energy together.
    • King Argaven also makes a point of asking if all aliens are as 'black' as their envoy. Genly notes that he's seen several Gethenians with skin almost as dark as his, but wisely keeps this to himself.
  • Ice Trek Forged Friends: Genly and Estraven.
  • First Contact: Genly is not the first alien on Gethen (the Ekumen always sends explorers first, where possible), but he is the first official one, and the first envoy, complete with, yes, I Come in Peace and Take Me to Your Leader, both of which get rather... complicated by the local reception.
  • Gender Bender: Gethenians have a 26-day long cycle of going into heat ("kemmer") and spending the rest as asexuals. Which sex they assume is beyond their control, though the use of artificial chemical means is implied to be on the rise.
  • Gender Neutral Writing: Much pain to anyone not a Gethenian. Sooner or later they all decide to use "he" or "she" for convenience, though it leads to traps - Genly's feminine "landlady", whom he couldn't resist to think of as a woman, was a father several times and a mother not once.
    • On the other hand, Gethenians have no proper word for man/woman, so outsiders attempting to make themselves understood must use the words that refer to the male and female forms of kemmer (the only alternative being words for male and female animals). In other words, they can only make the sex/gender distinctions humans routinely use by thinking of them as animals in permanent heat. This creates a few difficulties for Genly.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: with a few twists, quite apart from the obvious one; Argaven is also, for the most part, sufficiently bonkers to qualify as a version of The Caligula.

Stand on ZanzibarNebula AwardBug Jack Barron
The Last UnicornLiterature of the 1960sLilac Sphere
NovaHugo AwardBug Jack Barron
Legacy of the Drow SeriesScience Fiction LiteratureLensman

alternative title(s): The Left Hand Of Darkness
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