This book initially threw me. I hadn’t read the summary on the back of the book, and it took me a little while to realise that it was a story set on a world in which there is only one gender. If that isn’t difficult enough, it’s a planet in the grip of an ice age. Tough place to land if you’re an alien envoy trying to bring the inhabitants into the fold of interplanetary civilisation.
The main character is Genly Ai, a human sent to treat with the natives of Winter. The novel begins with him in the nation of ‘Karhide’, and Genly is attempting to gain acceptance that the nation is open to the idea of trading with the wider ranks of humanity off-planet. However, the politics of the place are complex, and his mission is imperiled almost immediately.
I enjoyed The Left Hand of Winter, but wasn’t as fascinated as I was with other Le Guin novels. The plot in this work was relatively simple, Genly is unsuccessful in Karhide, so travels to the nation’s neighbour Orgoreyn, where things really go awry. Behind the scenes one Lord Estraven is doing his utmost to bring about the new world Genly represents, at the cost of his own position and prestige.
The interesting thing about The Left Hand is the attempt by Le Guin to remove gender politics from political equations. The entire population of Winter are androgynes, and periodically enter ‘kemmer’ a state in which they begin to adopt either masculine or feminine features. Consequently any individual can be either the father or mother of children. It’s an interesting idea, one that immediately challenges the reader to consider their own gendered stereotypes, and I got the feeling it was the main purpose for the book. Certainly, the Karhide and Orgoreyn nations are supposed to represent the politics of the USA and USSR respectively, but this difference is not the main drive behind the plot and are instead vehicles.
The androgynous nature of Winter’s humanity, and the way it impacts on social interaction, as perceived by Genly or Estraven is the core of the story, as is the eventual close friendship between the two protagonists.
A good novel, and a good recommendation, but not an earth-mover for me.