IF YOU should buy a book, let it be Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
For the price of a book, you will get 20 stories, which is the number of chapters in this novel. Through this novel, you gain entry to two strange new lands: The planets Gethen and the Ekumen, about 20 years away from Gethen through timejumping on board a ship speeding “almost as fast as starlight between the stars” to ease intergalactic commuting a bit.
Reader, even before you finish reading the first line in the novel, you will recognize a third terrain: Our world.
First published in 1969, the novel opens with a character uttering, “Truth is a matter of the imagination.” As Le Guin observes in her introduction, “A novelist’s business is lying... Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”
The 20 stories arranged as chapters break away from the convention of storytelling that sequences narration in chronology, as recounted by one narrator. As we have been amply warned by the novelist, Reader, do not stick to one storyteller, one version.
The “one story” is told as a mishmash of different ways of storytelling (report, myth, journal entry, field notes, play for a traveling troupe, soliloquy, Q-&-A) in the voices of many storytellers (known, unknown, living, dead, speculatively divine).
All these accounts confuse. Can a story continue if the listeners are lost? Le Guin knows the human weakness for stories and the way we circumvent confusion: We choose what to believe.
Take sex, for instance. Gethenians sexually mature every cycle of 28 days or so; during the period of estrus (“kemmer” in Gethen), a person chooses the gender most dominant in its hormones at that period. The kemmering partner adjusts and takes on the complementary gender. Thus, it happens that in Gethen, “the mother of several children may be the father of several more.”
For a society preoccupied with sex for only a few days per cycle, the Ekumen’s fixed genders and lack of choice in sexuality affront the norm. Finding distasteful a lifetime of “permanent kemmer,” the Gethenians regard one so afflicted as a “pervert.”
Can Gethen be convinced to open itself to the Ekumen? Despite telling differences, there are many commonalities. In any dimension, the sole engine that keeps politicians running is personal interest: “His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”
Love, betrayal, alienation, belief—only the terrain of Le Guin’s world-building is strange. After you close the novel and blink in reality, the light cast by the imaginary will help you see better: fiction and truth are often partners in kemmer.