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Literature / The Left Hand of Darkness

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"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 and the most famous work of the Hainish Cycle. Darkness tells 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...

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

Tropes appearing in The Left Hand of Darkness:

  • Alien Gender Confusion: Earthlings have profound difficulty understanding Gethenian genders, and Gethenians have difficulty understanding Genly's permanent maleness.
  • 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.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Estraven, proposing the long trek through the wilderness back to Karhide, warns Genly that they will either have good luck or they will die. Genly's response is that he prefers dying on the ice to whatever fate awaits him in Orgoreyn.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Estraven is killed in a last act of vengeance by Tibe, ordering his execution by border guards. However, Tibe is deposed and replaced as the Prime Minister, and Ai succeeds in his mission to bring Gethen into the Ekumen. At the end of the book he visits Estraven's Hearth. He is asked to tell them the story of the circumstances that led to his death, which is implied to be the content of the book.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction: Gethenians are usually asexual and genderless, but go through a stage each month called kemmer. While in kemmer a Gethenian will become either male or female with no control over which sex they take, unless they use certain chemicals. The Gethen have no sibling incest taboo, although if a child is conceived from incest those relatives are expected to never mate again. While in kemmer Gethenians are male or female as we would recognise them, and children are conceived through regular sex.
  • Blood for Mortar: In the very first scene Genly notices all the bridges in Karhide have keystones set with pinkish mortar. Turns out they believe an arch will fall without a bloodbond. They used to mix the mortar with human blood and bones, but these days, animal substitutes are used.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Gethenians see no problem with sibling-sibling incest — (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.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The book is written as the protagonist's combination of his recollections, and the deuteragonist's mission log.
  • 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, Estraven the Chancellor is a decent person serving the insane King, but is soon replaced by a properly evil advisor. 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.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Gethenians not only think it's strange to prefer loving one sex over the other, but that it's strange to prefer being one sex over the other.
  • 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.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Genly and Estraven come to trust each other absolutely during their trek across the ice.
  • 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.
  • Forced Addiction: Genly is repeatedly drugged as a political prisoner in The Gulag. He assumes it was a Truth Serum with unpleasant side effects, but Estraven speculates that they were giving him addictive mind-altering drugs to "domesticate" him into docility. Either way, he recovers after a short time away.
  • 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.
  • 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. A noteworthy aspect is that Agraven is trying to become a mother, because only a "child in the flesh" can inherit the throne.
  • The Gulag: Orgoreyn runs several of them, called Voluntary Farms. The chapter in which Genly is sent there reads just like a real first-person account of being sent to Siberia, complete with inexplicable stops on the way (the viewpoint character can tell when his captors are stopping for technical reasons).
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The use of the term "bisexual" to describe regular human societies may come as that today.
  • 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: Ekumenians have managed to gain telepathy (the story of that is in another book). And can teach others.
  • 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'.
  • Info Dump: The expository chapters may feel like one.
  • Language of Truth: Mindspeak. Supposedly it cannot be used to "say" a conscious lie, and Genly explains it was even banned for decades by the powers-that-be frightened of a way of communication that enforced truthfulness. Apparently it also has weird side-effects, as Estraven perceives it in the voice of his dead brother, which is highly disturbing to him.
  • 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. "Keeping kemmer" (the equivalent of having a live-in significant other) is more common, but such a kemmering can be dissolved at any time with no repercussions. And vowing kemmer is something done only once in a lifetime — even if death do ye part.
  • Mate or Die: 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.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Some of the drawbacks of Handdaran foretelling. Apparently, this is the point. Some questions simply cannot be answered, though, and it's important to know which.
  • The Meaning of Life: It is mentioned that some person once asked a group of seers "what's the meaning of life". Some seers went mad, some died, one killed the guy who asked the question, and the leader went on to found his own religion, claiming that during his attempts, he saw everything that was, is and shall be. If an actual answer was ever provided, Genly does not hear it.
  • 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. On the other hand, it is mentioned that the Gethenians have progressed slowly over the centuries (a bad harvest no longer condemns an entire province to famine), in addition they have never had a war, events that in real life accelerate scientific progress and technical.
  • Multicultural Alien Planet: Gethen presents two main countries, Orgoreyn and Karhide, with different languages, different state religions (although both main religions on Gethern have followers in Karhide, Handdara is at least frowned upon in Orgoreyn), different customs and foods and different form of government, Karhide is a monarchy with elements of feudalism, while Orgoreyn is a Police State. There are more lands, like the Antarctic continent of Perunter, but the protagonist and main narrator did not visit them.
  • 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 Biochemical Barriers: Zig-zagged. All populated worlds are the results of experiments run long ago to see how humans would develop in different environments, so by definition they're all roughly suitable for any human. However, that doesn't mean everything is compatible with Genly's biology. When he's imprisoned and forced to take a course of anti-kemmer drugs (his jailers don't believe he's an alien), it nearly kills him.
  • No Biological Sex: The Gethenians, when they're not in kemmer.
  • Oh, My Gods!: Yomeshta tend to use expletives involving their prophet, Meshe.
  • 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. But a war is brewing and later short stories reveal that it eventually does happen.
    • Genly has some interesting musings on this trope once he ends up in Orgoreyn. When the person he asks about "sarf", a word he had heard a few times before, is oddly evasive about the topic, he figures out it's a secret police — and that he probably wouldn't have figured it out if he came from Hain or Chiffewar, worlds with a lot less of a cultural memory of violence than Earth.
  • The Republic: Orgoreyn, but it is a Police State.
  • Sacred Hospitality: The practice of "guesting" on Gethen of providing food and shelter for three days to any visitors, no questions asked. Referenced also in Estraven's exile, when he is given three days' grace to leave the country or he will be executed.
  • Schizo Tech: The inhabitants of the planet Gethen have radios, electric vehicles, sonic rifles that can paralyze without killing, and extremely light stoves whose batteries do not need recharging for months. But they do not have any type of flying apparatus and no war technology except primitive arquebuses (which they call "looting weapons").
  • 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 this one is a founder religion like Islam or Buddhism.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Gethen is often referred to as "Winter," and the climate's outstanding feature is cold, snow, and ice. It's actually more Earth-like than it seems, it just so happens to be in the middle of an ice age.
  • 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. At the end of the book, Genly meets Estraven's son by his own brother, and is comforted to know him.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: Gethen's analogue of LGBT's (and about as common as real life LGBT's) are people who tend to be a particular gender for longer than usual. One can guess this creates some problems when they encounter an Earthman.
  • 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, but it is called out with, when Genly is questioned on Ekumenians:
    "Are they all black as you?"
    Gethenians are yellow-brown or red-brown, generally.
  • Suicide Is Shameful: Suicide is considered particularly egregious on Gethen—being responsible for someone's suicide is seen as worse than being a murderer.
  • Super Mode: The Handdara faith teaches its acolytes how to induce and control dothe, what Genly translates as "hysterical 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 (going too long is deadly), and must spend a long time recovering afterward. (The "thangen sleep" after a dothe session is described as more like a low-level coma.)
  • 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 all humans, such as Genly).
  • Tragic Villain: Downplayed with Estraven. From his own moral and cultural point of view, he's crossed multiple taboos and boundaries by the story's end. He keeps most of them secret, but it's possible to read his later actions as increasing desperation as he sees himself as more and more of a pariah. To wit, he's vowed kemmering twice in his life, once to his own full-blooded sibling, he's failed in the game of politics and shifgrethor, resulting in exile, and he steals food and supplies from an isolated outpost.
  • 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.
  • Winter of Starvation: While outlawed, Genly and Estraven resort to an 81-day, 800-mile trek across the polar ice in winter on starvation rations, a literally legendary feat of endurance. Estraven's careful planning and survival expertise see them through, even though their food runs out three days before they reach safety.