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The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

01/12/2009. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Left Hand Of Darkness in the USA - or Buy The Left Hand Of Darkness in the UK

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pub: Orbit. 274 page small hardback. Price: 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-606-1.

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This year marks the fortieth anniversary of not only of man's first landing on the Moon but also of the publication of Ursula Le Guin's seminar work of feminist Science Fiction, 'The Left Hand Of Darkness'. To celebrate, Orbit have brought out a newly reset edition of the novel with several added extras.

'The Left Hand Of Darkness' is the fourth novel in Le Guin's Hainish cycle of novels and short stories. It won the Nebula Award in 1969 and the Hugo Award in the following year, making it one of only nineteen novels to be awarded both honours. It is worth noting that this feat was repeated five years later by Le Guin's next Hainish cycle novel, 'The Dispossessed'. This can perhaps be taken to indicate just how well-realised the Hainish universe is and how well Le Guin uses it to explore her chosen themes.

The story is set on a semi-frozen world called Gethen. Genly Ai is a visitor to this planet, an envoy from the Ekumen alliance of worlds, sent down to offer a trade alliance. However, he finds it difficult to gain the trust of the people of Karhide, the country where he first lands. They are all born politicians who never say what they really mean and they mistake his openness for naivety. Equally, very few of them believe in his story of travel from other worlds.

The most unusual thing about the people of Gethen is that for most of each month they are androgynous. They come into a state of sexual potency, called kemmer, for a few days each month. If aroused by someone else in the same state, random hormonal fluctuations will see one of them become male and the other female. As a result, adults can be a mother to some of their children and a father to the others. This strange monthly cycle allows Le Guin to explore many interesting issues concerning social relations and sexual politics. However, she always does this within the context of the story, never as a purely academic exercise.

The novel is ultimately an adventure story. After the diplomat Estraven, Ai's one supporter in Karhide, is exiled by the king as a traitor, Ai is sidelined. He moves on to Karhide's main rival, Orgoreyn, to see if they are more open. Although publicly welcoming, they are just as suspicious of his mission and eventually arrest him as a Karhide spy. He is imprisoned and interrogated, until Estraven arrives to rescue him. Together they escape Orgoreyn across the northern polar ice sheets, a journey which tests both of them to their limits and turns respect into friendship and then love.

This is a wonderfully thoughtful novel. Le Guin has produced a fully realised world and even though the structure and outlook of Gethenian society is so alien, the story itself remains deeply humane. The main protagonists, Ai and Estraven, are sympathetic characters. At the same time both have significant personality faults. The portrayal of Ai's arrest, journey to a resettlement camp and interrogation is so well drawn that it brought to my mind stories of Auschwitz or of the Russian gulags. Equally, the description of their subsequent escape over eight hundred miles of icy mountain ranges is a virtuoso piece of writing that kept me on the edge of my seat.

The extras in this 40th anniversary edition include a brief introductory essay by the author, the short story 'Coming Of Age In Karhide', a glossary, two songs and two sketch maps of the planet. I could certainly live without them but they are interesting additions to the book nonetheless.

My only real gripe is the use of the Gethenian clock and calendar throughout. The Gethenian year is divided into fourteen months of twenty six days and the names of each day and month are given in an annex at the end of the book. This certainly adds a level of authenticity to the story. However, I found myself having to refer all too frequently to the annex in order to understand the development of the story. After a while, this became pretty irritating.

That minor point aside, this is a welcome new edition of a true classic of Science Fiction. If you only know Le Guin from her 'Earthsea' series of fantasy novels for children, give this a go. You won't be disappointed.

Patrick Mahon

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