The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 1969. The book was a winner of the 1969 Hugo and 1970 Nebula awards. One of the first major works of "feminist science fiction" (although Le Guin dislikes such labels), it is the account of the efforts of Genly Ai, a representative from the galactic federation of worlds (the Ekumen) to bring the world of Gethen into galactic society.


The inhabitants of Gethen are androgynes, biologically bisexual humans; for approximately three weeks of each month they are biologically neuter, and for the remaining week are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sex partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children. (The Gethenians were genetically engineered for this characteristic long ago, possibly to maximize reproductive success on the harsh glaciated world of Gethen, or because the ancient biological engineers were curious about what such people would be like.)

Le Guin developed this idea out of a desire to explore what remained basic to human nature when biological gender was no longer a factor. The Left Hand of Darkness is a significant milestone in the increasing sophistication of the treatment of sex in science fiction that developed in the 1970s.


Analysis

A large part of the novel is an exploration of a neuter society—i.e., a society in which sexual conflict plays no role. Le Guin's most challenging assertion is that such world would have no war: lacking a deep sense of duality implied by strong gender divisions, Gethenians lack a necessary component of nationalism. Their sense of us vs. them is strongly mitigated by their intuitive grasp that there is no real difference, that any distinction is at least somewhat arbitrary.

In its place, Gethenians have an elaborate system of social prestige in which individuals jockey for position by subtle maneuvering—the exact kind of social conflict seen in homogenous groups (cf. office politics). The demonisation of others is artificial and temporary; alliances shift easily, and prevailing cultural mores are determined and protected by the next clearest division between groups, geography. Nations exists, and different places have different societies, but they blend at the edges. Low level raiding of indeterminate value preserves a sense of hostility and division that is useful for internal political purposes, but there is little real desire to actually conquer another nation. Indeed, the concept of full-scale war is unknown to Gethenian societies.

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Preceded by: Series:
City of Illusions Ekumen
fr:La Main gauche de la nuit
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