In one sense these books are almost brackets of the Hainish cycle. The Disposessed is positioned right at a beginning of the regathering of the worlds into a body of union, an alliance, in terms of a League of All Worlds. The Terrans and the Hainish have emissaries to the Ceti worlds (well, world , with Anarres being sort of out of the greater picture at this point) but there isn’t, yet, a unified alliance of worlds in place and the ansible which makes all things possible is still in its infancy, its physics still in the process of being worked out. Initially the League of All Worlds was formed to unite the planets descended from Hain’s colonizing efforts and began with the “nine known worlds” (plus colonies, presumably). The events in The Disposessed show the beginnings of possibility and the first inklings of the rise of the physics which makes the ansible possible. By the time we hit the date stamp of Rocannon’s world/Planet of Exile/City of Illusions the ansible is known, and has been in use, and there is mention of at least 80 worlds known to have belonged to the League – at least until the Shing arrive, and devastate the alliance. After the overthrow of the Shing, the 80+world alliance is apparently reconstructed eventually as the Ekumen, and the rest of the Hainish cycle tells of the efforts of that body to re-establish a galactic civilization. Which is where The Left Hand of Darkness comes in.
To be perfectly honest, this is the book that defines Ursula Le Guin for me. I don’t remember if that was the first book of hers that I ever actually read – it may not have been – but it is certainly one that I remember most vividly, the one that left the most impact. It is not, as Le Guin herself says in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness in the copy that I own, a novel of the future, nor does it pretend to predict or prophesy anything. “Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and by futurologists (salaried),” she says. “Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.” And then she says, “Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”
And that is the power of this book. That – wrapped carefully inside the silver tissue of a novelist’s lies – and because this is a great novelists the lies are very good – this is a book that tells the truth.
Remember that corridor we were walking in, before, looking out through the window at the various Hainish worlds of the early novels, without ever being part of them? Well, The Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t let you sit it out and observe. There is no longer a window. This is now a door, and it is wide open, and outside it is winter in a world that bears the same name. And the wind is cold and there is a blizzard blowing and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. And you never see the other hand, the one that comes snaking out of the whiteout and wraps its long fingers around your wrist and yanks you forward and into the icy blast.
You don’t sit out Gethen. You’re part of it. You recognize viscerally Genly Ai’s need to fulfill his task on this strange and alien world to which he doesn’t – can never – belong. Perhaps we haven’t literally stepped into an alien world ourselves – but every so often our own can feel alien to us, and the Ekumen Envoy’s unenviable position is only an extreme bitter outlying end to something we can understand perfectly well because every one of us has been in a position at some point where it seemed as though you were perfectly clear on what you yourself were thinking, saying, and doing, and yet everyone else appears utterly incapable of understanding any of those things – which you don’t realise, or at least don’t realise the extent of, until it is too late. Perhaps it is the first-person narrative from both the POV of Genly Ai and of Estraven which makes it so devastatingly easy to get inside their skins and feel their feelings and think their thoughts. But all I can say is that the Ekumen was well served by its Ambassador, and that you would not consider your life wasted if somewhere in it you gained a friend like Estraven – with his loyalty, his nobility, and his willingness to sacrifice everything for a cause greater than himself.
There’s a piece of dialogue that sums that up:
“ ‘ he loved his country very dearly, sir, but he did not serve it, or you. He served the master I serve.’
‘The Ekumen?’ said Agarven, startled.
‘No. Mankind.’ “
Because it is Le Guin, and because she is telling the truth, her fiction shines with it, all the way.
“A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”
“…the implication that civilization, being artificial, is the opposite of primitiveness… of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth , and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.”
It is a book about a much bigger thing than the story which it tells you that it is telling. It pulls you inside it, but it also infiltrates you. In some ways it makes you a Gethenian – not in terms of gender, but in terms of wisdom. You exist most of your life in a place where it is acceptable to simply be – but every now and then something from this book will send out a tendril, and it pushes you into a sort of philosophical kemmer, and you become wise. If in that time you meet another mind in a similar place, the axis of the world can be changed. Such is the legacy of someone like Le Guin.
The Dispossessed is the second masterpiece in the Hainish cycle, and it is a very different book – no first person narrative, here, but the reader is so tightly focused on Shevek and what he thinks and does and dares that it may as well be told thus. In a way we wear Shevek’s skin – we become him – and his inspirations, bewilderments, choices, triumphs, and failures, all become our own. In a way it is given to us to look upon our own world and what we have wrought with it or are in the process of wreaking on it… through alien eyes, and it is given to us to recoil from some things, and understand others. Perhaps here, too, there are great truths all wrapped up in Urrati wise, in tissue in boxes in wrapping paper, a plain truth inside a mystery inside an enigma inside a false flag of misdirection, and if only we can burrow to the heart of the matter it will come clear. Le Guin pours in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and yes, physics, and builds societies with them, and then dismantles them and rebuilds them from the same blocks in a different way, and we watch, fascinated, hypnotized.
Think of some of the things that glitter out of that narrative, like polished gemstones left in there for us to find:
“Becoming without being is meaningless. Being without becoming is a big bore.”
“There is a point when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
Shevek the physicist and philosopher has a lot of these insights. That is what I mean by us being inside his skin, inside his mind, and the ideas that occur to him become our ideas, embed inside our own matrix
Here’s a couple of Shevek-insights (and not on physics, on which I am not competent to comment):
“You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.”
“You cannot have anything… and least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future. Not only the past but also the future, and not only the future but also the past! Because they are real; only their reality make the present real.”
One particular sentence from The Dispossessed sums up these two novels in a nutshell:
“The sunlights differ but there is only one darkness.”
Ursula Le Guin takes us into the dark, here. And then leads out into the light. It may be a different sunlight than the one we are used to, but it is a light – and it is hers to give.
If the first trio of Hainish novels was a backdrop which served as a set of building blocks for the universe that Le Guin was building, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are the masterpieces of both the Hainish cycle, and perhaps of Le Guin’s entire oeuvre. The books leave you shivering, aware, awake. These books are one of the most enduring legacies that can be left by a storyteller: one of the most accomplished lies – one of the greatest truths ever told – one of the most unforgettable moments in any reader’s life. Both in the first encounter (and I will always have a tiny tinge of envy for those who are about to experience these books for the first time) and in a most rewarding re-read.
These essays originally appeared on my Patreon