How did I manage to read science fiction all through my teen years in the late 70s/early 80s and never read The Left Hand of Darkness? I have no idea but I corrected that omission. Sometimes when one does that, it’s disappointing. This is not one of those times.
(Quick and simplistic summary for those unfamiliar: published in 1969, it’s a science fiction novel by Ursula K. LeGuin. The basic premise is that a human being, representing a sprawling consortium of worlds inhabited by human-ish races, is making first contact with the people of Gethen, who do not have genders as we know them; they are non-gendered and then about once a month go into a period where pairs take on sexual characteristics and mate, and then revert to their normal non-gendered form).
The novel takes the form of a travelogue through two nations of Gethen, a harsh, icy planet. It’s incredibly dense with detail about the people and societies there but delivered so skillfully that it never drags. What’s stunning about it is how many topics is covers. The gender and reproductive issues are obviously a part of it, but LeGuin doesn’t take the more obvious approaches to this and instead explored how the lack of male/female duality changes all kinds of social dynamics.
But it’s also about friendship and the meaning of patriotism, and it’s that last part that particular resonated for me, no doubt because of the current state of the world.
Consider this passage where our narrator speaks to his local traveling companion (the question is the narrator, the rest his Gethenian comrade):
“… You hate Orgoreyn, don’t you?”
“Very few Orota know how to cook. Hate Orgoreyn? No, how should I? How does one hate a country, or love one? Time talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know town, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know his the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain lowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing.”
The questions of loyalty to country figure heavily in the plot, where nationalism is pitted against concern for one’s whole people.
It’s timely – 50 years after its publication – as well as just being a masterful piece of fiction. If you’ve never gotten around to it, this is a good time. The paperback edition out now includes an afterword by Charlie Jane Anders that offers some interesting background of reactions to it when it was published, as well as some insights into the many, many things going on in the book.