“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”
So begins Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The story is one of an ice-planet named Gethen (Winter), and the arrival there of an Envoy from a vast human empire (although that’s an odd way of describing the Ekumen League of Worlds), sent alone to invite the humans of Winter into their collective. After all, “One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”
The Envoy lands in the kingdom of Karhide, where all kings are mad. The inhabitants of Winter have evolved in a singular (or rather, a binary) way – no Gethenian is male or female. They are neuters, until they reach kemmer (which is analogous to animals being in heat), and they rapidly change gender (or gain gender, I suppose.) Which leads to great sentences like “The King was pregnant.”
It also leads to a near-complete misunderstanding of social cues, and even between the two humans – “Ai was exhausted and enraged. He looked ready to cry, but did not. I believe he considers crying either evil or shameful. Even when he was very ill and weak, the first days of our escape, he hid his face from me when he wept. Reasons personal, racial, social, sexual – how can I guess why Ai must not weep?” It is a fantastic exercise in the social and psychological snags between two alien minds, even when so similar.
Ursula Le Guin writes beautiful science fiction, my favourite style of science fiction: anthropological science fiction. From the Kingdom of Karhide to its rival, Orgoreyn, she explores different political extremes as well. Karhide, an aristocracy, torn by power struggles at court and with a complex system of honour and social positioning, is dysfunctional, “Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel,” especially when seen alongside Orgoreyn, at least at first. Orgoreyn is a socialist nightmare, is dystopian.
“He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”
With Estroven exiled, the Envoy departs for Orgoreyn with the King’s words still in his ears: “…you’re not a traitor, you’ve merely been the tool of one. I don’t punish tools. They do harm only in the hands of a bad workman.”