More than any other literary genre perhaps, science fiction is usually considered to be strictly concerned with the realm of fantasy. It is almost always associated with fantastical stories about a distant future, where reality is strikingly different from what we know it to be. The science fiction writer invents an entire world, with new coordinates, different inhabitants and new habits. In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin opposes this commonly accepted view of science fiction as a genre. The author’s argument reveals that science fiction is not that different from normal fiction. According to Le Guin, science fiction does not make claims about the future, but rather creates a more complex fictional world, which describes the present in a different way. As it shall be seen, The Left Hand of Darkness exemplifies the author’s claim. Although the novel seems to be a documentary of a distant future, inhabited by entirely new races of people, the strangeness of this new world dwindles as the reading progresses. Ultimately, The Left Hand of Darkness is a novel about politics, colonization, cultural difference and gender. In a veiled form, the book describes many aspects of the world, as we know it today, emphasizing the nature of the human civilization.
As Le Guin argues in her introduction to the novel, her work does not aim at making prescriptions for the future. In her view, the author of science fiction puts forth no claim of having knowledge about the future. Rather, as any other work of fiction, the science fiction genre describes the human world and its psychological reality: “I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies” (Le Guin 9). Thus, the work of science fiction is only a much more elaborate artistic invention, meant to describe certain facts and nuances of the human reality. These facts or present realities are made more unfamiliar, at the first glance, by the complex process of improvisation, involved in the work of science fiction. As Le Guin emphasizes, the novelist’s mission, whether in writing science fiction or common fiction, is to veil the truth in a heap of lies. For the Le Guin, fiction is a lie which, paradoxically, points to the truth: “The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words” (Le Guin 11). The paradox is that the truth is always hidden an almost impossible to define, due to its complexity. Therefore, to describe the complexity of life on earth, the novelist makes recourse to fantasy and complex improvisations. Science fiction is not escapist, as it is usually assumed. Like any other work of fiction it is inspired and informed by the reality that surrounds all of us. Instead of being presented in a raw form, reality is made unfamiliar in fiction, so as the novelist may be able to extract the essential truths that define it.
The Left Hand of Darkness proves profusely that this is indeed the author’s design. The work is replete with facts and realities veiled in a cocoon of fictional improvisation. The novel is written as a report or journal of the protagonist, Genly Ai, who is sent on a diplomatic mission to Winter, an isolated planet that is not yet part of the Ekumen. The Ekumen is the name given to a federation comprising thousands of planets and nations in the universe. Although the facts presented so far seem unfamiliar, it is obvious that the Ekumen is similar to other federal organizations in our own world, such as the European Union, for example. The plot actually consists of Genly Ai’s experiences during his three year mission on the unknown planet. His mission is another allusion to the process of colonization, which has almost always existed in the human world. The way in which Genly Ai perceives this entirely different world at first, is an instance of cultural shock. Everything seems to be different on this isolated planet. Aliens had come to explore the planet before but they did not reveal their identity. The Gethenians’ isolation from the rest of the worlds made them gradually oblivious of the existence of other humans in the universe. Their technology is underdeveloped, compared to that of the plants that are part of the Ekumen. The most extraordinary difference of all, however, is gender related: the Gethenians are hermaphrodite beings, who only exercise their sexuality for a very brief monthly period, known as the “kemmer”. During the kemmer, the people become predominantly male or female and engage in sexual acts. After this period passes, they become hermaphrodite again.
The extreme cold temperatures of the planet which lives in an Ice Age, the gender differences, the curious habits and behavioral patterns of the inhabitants, all make Genly Ai very uncomfortable in the beginning. His mission seems at first doomed to failure, as he is unable to find a good means to explain his message. He is perceived as an alien by all those he comes in contact with, and he feels like one as well. His failure to adapt is also obvious in the fact that he trusts the wrong persons all along. For instance, he mistrust Estraven, in the beginning, and he is proven wrong by the end of the story. None of the inhabitants seem to be receptive to his mission and to want to know about the other worlds in the universe. The king, Argaven symbolizes the distrust of the people and their reluctance to mingle with other, strange worlds: “If there are eighty thousand worlds full of monsters out there among the stars, what of it? We want nothing from them. We’ve chosen our way of life and have followed it for a long time” (Le Guin, 46). Using elaborate fictional improvisation, Le Guin manages to capture a reality which is particular to the human world, as we know it at present. Even though mankind has evolved to a higher organization and technological means, human nature remains the same. The world has evolved from the colonization of unknown lands of countries on earth, to that of unknown planets. The elaborate references to cultural, racial and gender difference comprehend the entire scope of difference, as it is understood now.
What is significant is that, gradually and almost without realizing it, Genly is assimilated in the new culture he explores. When a ship with men and women from his own world arrives, he is not recognized by the others: “‘Oh Genly,’ she said, ‘I didn’t know you!’ It was strange to hear a woman’s voice, after so long” (Le Guin 306). Moreover, he himself seems unwilling to mingle with people of his own race. He perceives them now through the eyes of a Gethenian and is appalled at the sexual differences between them and at their seemingly overt sexuality: “But they all looked strange to me, men and women, well as I knew them. Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill. They were like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species: great apes with intelligent eyes, all of them in rut, in kemmer…” (Le Guin 307). The last pages of the book show that he now uses Gethenian concepts and words with ease, and can no longer shift to his former ways of thinking. All these changes in the main protagonist point to the way in which human nature is apt to incorporate different habits of life and perpetually progress to a new state of being and development. Although situated in the distant future and in on a fictional planet, the narrative describes the nature of humanity, its adaptability and capacity for progress. The novel concludes with an allusion to an essential trait of humanity: its constant desire to know and explore. The fact that hero becomes mingled with the new race and adapts even to their extremely different sexuality, shows that the man is prone to become reconciled with any new state that he encounters. The novel is therefore a reflection of the ways of existence and progress, proper to the human civilization.
Thus, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness conforms to the narrative rules stated by the author in the introduction. Although part of the science fiction genre, it is not escapist but rather realist. It captures essential realities about human life and human nature, rendering them through the veil of fictional design.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Trade, 2000.