Two strangers on a distant planet—separated by culture and species—haul a sledge across a glacier in a desperate flight to safety. This is the simple yet compelling premise behind the climactic sequence in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The idea of a long, treacherous journey transcends literary traditions. Many stories have that “third act” set piece—a battle, or fight, or some other fraught situation—that pushes the characters to their limits and forces them to make the hard decisions that will resolve the story.
So what makes Le Guin’s use of this technique so special that I have to give people a dirty look when they tell me they’ve never read her work?
Simply put, the journey across the Gobrin ice-sheet does not merely keep the page turning. It provides a payoff to one of the most ambitious world-building projects in the history of literature. I now have the pleasure of knowing a few fellow writers who point to this section of the book as one of the moments that made them say, “This is why I want to write. This is why I want to tell stories.”
For those of you who don’t yet know—but I hope will soon find out—Le Guin employs more than mere flashback and exposition to set up this climactic scene. The Left Hand of Darkness includes legends, journal entries, poetry, and song to construct this alien world in the reader’s mind. By the time we reach the Gobrin, we are all citizens of planet Gethen, immersed in the culture and language, irritated but hardened by the bitter wintry climate, steeped in the political intrigue of the rival nations of Karhide and Orgoreyn. Le Guin uses details when they are most effective, such as when the characters plot out how many days the trip will take, how many pounds of food they have, and how many kilometers per day they’ll have to travel. At other times, she keeps things vague to let the reader fill in the rest. I love asking people what they think the ration gichy-michy tastes like, or what the tea-like brew orsh smells like at full boil, or what noises the fox-like pesthry make when caught in a trap.
Moreover, Le Guin drops two compelling characters into this scenario, both deeply suspicious of the other, both committed to the roles they see themselves playing. I very often find myself thinking of Genly Ai, the envoy to Gethen, and Estraven, Ai’s only true friend on this alien world, whose plan of escape involves setting out into the bleak wilderness with some rations, camping gear, and a very reliable space heater. In the hands of someone less capable, this scene would devolve into melodrama, with contrived shouting matches or even violence driving the action. Instead, the story trusts the characters to be the professional, cunning, enlightened people they have been up to this point. And perhaps this is where the real tension lies, outweighing the dire external circumstances. The characters explore each other’s psyche in poignant and tender moments, trying to ponder what life must be like from another perspective. At one point, for example, Ai wakes up to find his rescuer sleeping nearby. “I saw him now defenseless and half-naked in a colder light,” Ai says, “and for the first time saw him as he was.” Later, the characters continue to awkwardly navigate the diplomatic protocols that have governed their relationship. But slowly, the barriers fall. Estraven enters kemmer, the mating period of his species, and regretfully informs Ai how difficult it is to be near another person during this time. Ai, meanwhile, shares his telepathic ability, and soon the two companions are able to communicate even when blinded and deafened by a blizzard. Eventually, Ai observes, “Estraven and I had simply arrived at the point where we shared whatever we had that was worth sharing.”
This slow and surprising union of two strangers makes The Left Hand of Darkness one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. This is my sacred scripture. This is what science fiction and fantasy can do. In much the same way that Star Trek shows us what the future can be like if we set aside our differences in pursuit of a common goal, Le Guin’s novel imagines how bridges can be built, chasms crossed. By the end, the book has changed us. Thus, the author not only demonstrates how to build worlds. She shows why we build worlds in the first place.
Robert Repino’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize among other awards, and has appeared in The Literary Review, Night Train, Hobart, Juked, Word Riot, The Furnace Review, The Coachella Review, JMWW, and the anthology Brevity and Echo. His debut novel Mort(e), a science fiction story about a war between animals and humans, is forthcoming from Soho Press in January 2015. You can read an excerpt here on Tor.com.