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.
  • The Berserker: Estraven — in a non-straightforward way. The Handara discipline teaches its acolytes how to induce and control dothe, what Genly translates as "hysterical strength," which another writer might call berserker strength. Dothe, properly used, can increase stamina and strength many times over, but it's also very dangerous — the user must know what "stage" of dothe they are in, and if they don't rest and eat abundantly afterwards, they could easily kill themselves.
  • 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.
  • The Gulag: Orgoreyn runs them. Gulag - "send them to Siberia!" - the planet Winter - get it? Wink, wink?
  • His/Her Heart Will Go On: It's complicated.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: particularly notable as Gethenians very much frown on suicidal behaviour.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future
  • Ice World: Gethen is currently in its Ice Age.
  • Ikea Erotica: Most of the discussion of Gethenian sexuality; justified in that these are generally anthropological in intent. Also Genly's speculation about the possibility of intercourse with a Gethenian.
    • The short story "Coming of Age in Karhide" is more erotic. At least, if you're not freaked out by the word 'clitopenis'.
  • Incest Is Relative: Estraven and Arek.
  • Info Dump: the expository chapters may feel like one.
  • The Kingdom: Karhide.
  • Language of Truth: Mindspeak.
  • Love Martyr: Estraven's poor ex, Ashe.
  • Marry for Love: Gethenians "vow kemmer" to one another, but never for political purposes — all such vows are made purely for love. That said, to vow kemmer is a much rarer act than marriage is on Earth. Most people are happy enough to go to the kemmerhouses, couple freely, and go back to normal life. And vowing kemmer is something done only once in a lifetime — even if death or divorce do ye part.
  • Mathematician's Answer / Either/Or Prophecy: Some of the drawbacks of Handarran foretelling. Apparently, this is the point.
  • Medieval Stasis: Gethenians have known radio and electric automobiles for two thousand years, and they still use them. It's discussed in-universe whether it's the need to survive in harsh environment that uses up all the innovativeness.
  • Multitasked Conversation: The Karhideans do this a lot, largely due to their complicated shifgrethor status system, much to Genly's frustration, since he finds the Double Speak involved troublingly feminine and shifty. The Orgota for their part tend towards this because they live in a police state.
  • No Biological Sex: The Gethenians, when they're not in kemmer.
  • Oh My Meshe: Yomeshta tend to use expletives involving their prophet, Meshe.
  • The Republic: Orgoreyn, which is a Police State.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: Sort of. Gethenians do kill each other by murders or clan feuds, but have never had a war. Like in the Medieval Stasis example, it's discussed if it's the harsh weather, or the lack of male-female — the most primal kind of "us versus them" — distinction. Later short stories reveal that the war will happen.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Genly, normally a conscientious and careful Envoy, hits this badly when he enters Orgoreyn. His first day in a police state ends with him and the entire inn put under brutal arrest, but within days of being recovered and put in the hands of the politicians, he's able to convince himself that Orgoreyn is the enlightened nation he's been looking for. Still, all the time he's there his instinct keeps telling him something is off.
  • Shown Their Work: le Guin's interest in Taoism fairly clearly colours the descriptions of Gethenian religion, at least as far as Handdara is concerned: it is less clear what the breakaway Yomeshta group (dominant in Orgoreyn, and increasingly in Karhide) corresponds to, but at least it's a founder religion like Islam or Buddhism.
  • Smug Snake: Argaven's Perpetual Smiler evil cousin Tibe, with a side of The Starscream (though s/he finds it convenient to leave Argaven officially in charge).
  • Someone to Remember Him By: It's complicated.
  • Subspace Ansible: The Hainish Cycle, of which The Left Hand of Darkness is the most acclaimed part, is the Trope Namer, if not the Trope Maker.
  • Suddenly Ethnicity: It can take a while to register that Genly is black.
  • Telepathy: The peoples of the Ekumen have learnt to use this (which makes them Telepathic Spacemen to the Gethenians). The Gethenians have not, though it's clear they are capable of learning (as are humans, such as Genly).
  • UST: Genly and Estraven, discussed in-universe.
    "For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. But it was from the differences between us, not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that. I do not know if we were right."
  • The Vamp: Orgota Secret Police agent Gaum, complete with attempted Honey Trap.

Adaptation

  • In April 2015, as part of the "Ursula LeGuin at 85" Month, BBC Radio 4 created a two-part radio drama adaptation of the novel.