By Ursula K Le Guin

Released : 17/10/2020

Reviewed : 11/10/2020

Reviewed by : Natali Ningthoukhongjam

The king was pregnant.\”

Published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness was Ursula K. Le Guin\’s fourth book in her Hainish Cycle. Genly Ai, an Envoy from Terra (Earth) has signed up to travel to Gethen, a planet still in the grip of an Ice Age, and convinces the leaders of its nations to join the Ekumen, an alliance of 80 plus planets. But neither the paranoid king of Karhide nor the self-serving bureaucrats of Orgoreyn will be convinced easily. There is also Estraven, the exiled Prime Minister of Karhide, who seems to harbour motives of his own. Genly must learn to navigate the complex politics brewing between these different parties or face persecution.

This book is supposedly the report of Genly\’s anthropological survey of Gethenians, who are ambisexual. Their hermaphrodite status changes only during the kemmering cycle, in which their body either assumes female sex or male sex. There is no fixed rule and the burden of child-birth may fall on any individual who happens to have female reproductive organs on that particular cycle. The analysis of the implications of this androgynous state is the book\’s greatest triumph, for it opens up many other discussions on gender, sexuality, sexual repression/expression. There is no rape in Gethen, and seduction is rarely practised. To Gethenians, the permanent sex status of Genly, a human male, is as perplexing and anomalous as their changeable sex form is to Genly.
It is impossible not to put prevalent discourses on sexuality and sex under a magnifying glass and inspect them again after reading the detailed study offered by Le Guin in the sections where it is featured.

The book is more than its fascinating examination of sex as a biological condition. Le Guin builds religions and philosophies, critiques xenophobia, and defines and redefines what it means to be an alien. The human story that runs like an undercurrent in the first half breaks to the surface in the second, gifting the book an emotional impact. Le Guin was criticised by feminist readers of her time for Genly\’s overt sexism (and rightly so). She admitted her mistake in an interview with The New Yorker thirty years later, saying she should have done better. Yes, she should have, but what she did in this book is ground-breaking and worthy of the novel\’s reputation as a seminal text in science fiction and gender study. An instant favourite that I highly recommend to fans of speculative fiction and gender bending writing and anybody else searching for something different.

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