By Rachel MacFarland
I find it kind of wild that I haven’t yet reviewed a book by Ursula Le Guin. Having only discovered her work several years ago, there was the initial impulse to gorge, because her writing was so brilliant, hitting me in that soul-sister way. But I adopted an imitation-form-of-flattery stance and practiced restraint, because restraint is part of what I love about Le Guin’s style. She has an uncanny ability to keep a steady, measured tempo; there’s never a sense of rushing, jumping around, or drag. She’s precise, like a surgeon, or a tai chi master. So then when she bends your mind and knocks you on your fucking ass, you never even saw it coming. As of now, I can’t credit any other human with the mind-bending expansion capabilities that Ursula Le Guin employs, so much so that I have considered the possibility that the woman is, in fact, an alien. Because how can one human be so boundless?
The book I most recently finished is The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969 by Ace Books. It’s important to note that Le Guin is a world-builder, and while her novels and short stories can and do stand on their own, they start to grow in complexity and scope the more you read her work. Sometimes the connection is only as close as a winking planet, but much of human scope is measured against such distant lights, and Le Guin has peopled many such lights, and united them.
Now I may bumble this somewhat—Le Guin’s mythology architecture—but I believe Hain is the origin world that led to a federation of planets known as the Ekumen. Hain plays a small but significant part in The Left Hand of Darkness; one of the two main characters is an alien representing Hain (and the Ekumen). When I say alien, I mean someone who is still human, originally from Terran (which is like our Earth), but utterly foreign to the planet where the story takes place, Gethen. Gethen is also known as Winter, and “winter” is entirely indicative of the planet’s nature; it is harsh, cold, and often buried under massive swathes of ice and snow.
The alien, Genly Ai, is a guest in the city of Erhenrang, in the nation of Karhide, which is ruled by a mad king. As I said, he is a Hainish envoy, hoping to bring Winter into the Ekumen, but struggling to convince anyone of his reality; few people on Winter have the mind to believe in spaceships and aliens; because of the planet’s harshness, no animals with wings exist, and so the concept of flying has never occurred to anyone, let alone traveling into the stars. The Gethenians skepticism is countered by Genly Ai’s own need to adapt to Gethenian cultures and concepts, perhaps most notably: the people of Winter are genderless. Once a month (like a menstrual cycle), a person experiences kemmer, which is largely similar to being in heat. During kemmer, they can become either male or female, mate with someone, and then return to their genderlessness state until the next kemmer cycle. Because of this, the Gethenians find a human who walks around in a constant state of unfulfilled kemmer to be quite disturbing.
The Left Hand of Darkness is filled with such concepts, provoking curiosity and consideration of the nature of humanness. I could offer up ponderances on such asides indefinitely, but that wouldn’t really give you any cornerstone to rest these ideas upon. Irresistibly, I offer one final example: the concept of shifgrethor, which is a sort of social rhetoric/verbal sparring that exists on Gethen and offers subtle commentary on how we humans manage to speak so easily and verbosely without ever touching upon our true intentions. These side avenues of thought are another reason I love Le Guin’s work so much; she creates and employs all these asides without losing the pace or drive of the story.
So, plot. Genly Ai fails to convince the king of the value of joining an alliance of planets, so he decides to cross the border into a neighboring country, Orgoreyn, which functions differently than Karhide, hoping to convince the leaders there. His failure in Karhide, though, ostracizes one of the king’s men, Estraven, who is cast out as a traitor to the crown for aligning himself with an alien. So while Genly Ai travels to Orgoreyn of his own accord, Estraven escapes (separately) to Orgoreyn, banished from his country. The two characters meet again, though, and because of certain circumstances, they decide to cross the Gobrin Ice, which is nearly a thousand miles of uninhabited, desolate “wasteland,” in order to return to Karhide, undetected. Crossing the lifeless void of an unforgiving planet puts the two characters into an incredibly adventurous, life-and-death, close-quarters intimacy, because even as they are absolutely alien to each other, they are essential to the other’s survival.
With the Ice setting a dangerous but largely blank backdrop, Le Guin is free to examine and test the two characters like weights on a scale, finding out how they tip and how they balance. To fill the time when they’re bound to the tent, Genly Ai attempts to teach Estraven how to mind-speak, something he has learned through his relationship with the Ekumen, a skill that is something like telepathy. Like kemmer, like shifgrethor, Le Guin is again exploring humanness, having now plucked her two subjects from the noise and flurry of the city and the political games of each country and setting them down into an isolating yet ultimately shared experience. So, what do two aliens talk about when all they have is each other?
The halls of history are piled, stacked, and dusty with stories and books that contend with such curiosity—because we’ve always wanted to know who and what and why we are—but the experimental nature of Le Guin’s writing is timeless. Timeless seems too cliché: Vonnegut-style unstuck. Beyond. Time. She has a way of delivering a line with the poetic lilt and clarity of the natural world itself. It’s as if her words exist simply because they can, not by demand or provocation. In this way, her work consistently reads like fresh air, as if she has opened a forgotten window in that long hall of history, unsettling the dust, stirring the pages, and rolling the bones of the dead.