Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

Presented by Michael Dirda

Last August I thought hard for a couple of days about just what favorite work of literature to choose for the Post's Book Club. Almost reflexively, I nearly opted for Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse, then considered George Gissing's bitter portrait of the literary life in Victorian England, New Grub Street, and almost settled on Edmund Crispin's Oxford-as-Wonderland mystery, The Moving Toyshop. But then I remembered that my choice would appear in January, and the answer came to me: Ursula K. Le Guin's unforgettable evocation of a world of winter, The Left Hand of Darkness.

That this beautifully written short novel is also a masterpiece of science fiction made it all the more appealing. Many readers, I know, still imagine that sf is a mishmash of star wars and ray guns, bug-eyed monsters and scantily class space rangerettes. Not so. Science fiction can be shlocky, but it can also be radically experimental, cunningly artful, and sometimes, as in the final pages here, almost inexpressibly moving. Of course, in many ways, The Left Hand of Darkness is a safe choice, as it may well be the most widely admired sf work of the past 30 or so years, a winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. But it is so deeply admired for good reasons.

* Consider its gravely measured tone: `I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my home world that Truth is a matter of the imagination.` That's the first sentence, and Genly Ai -- the black Envoy from a galactic alliance of cultures called the Ekumen--is about to recount his experiences on the planet Gethen, known as Winter. Genly has been trying for two years to see the insane king of the nation-state called Karhide; his chief supporter is the prime minister, Estraven. Suddenly, though, Estraven falls from power and is sent into exile, with a death sentence placed on his head. Nevertheless, the Envoy has his interview with the king, who admits that he finds the existence of the Ekumen a threat to his security and ancient privileges. Having failed in his initial diplomatic overtures, Genly decides to travel about Gethen, observing its culture and peoples. Eventually, he and Estraven will cross paths again and, together, make an arduous `night journey` by sledge across the legendary Gobrin Ice.

* Science fiction authors are often world-builders, creating imaginary societies and depicting strange customs that nonetheless illuminate our own contemporary problems and obsessions. There is a whole series of such illuminations in The Left Hand of Darkness, as the reader notices similarities with, say, Perry's opening of Japan or current conflict in the Middle East; at other moments, the novel evokes the starkness of the Icelandic sagas and the rituals of primitive peoples. (Le Guin is the daughter of noted anthropologists.) The emphasis on Jungian archetypes, balance in life, and mystical non-knowing slowly invests the book with a kind of philosophical majesty and grandeur. But there is one other great lightning shock. The people of Gethen are `five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters,` who cycle between being male or female. Thus the same person can be a father and a mother. As a result, Le Guin's novel reflects on sexual identity and sexism -- remember that it first appeared in the mid 1960s -- while ultimately becoming an evocation of something far more complex: love.

As you read this superb novel, take note then of the beauty of its somber style, the depiction of power politics, its inquiry into the nature of life, its thrilling account of the crossing of the Gobrin Ice (which is also a journey into the self), and, most of all, its meditation on the meaning of love and sacrifice.

Book Club Selections

February

Young Men and Fire,

by Norman Maclean.

Presented by Dennis Drabelle.

March

Growing Up,

by Russell Baker. Presented by Jonathan Yardley.

April

Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston. Presented by Marie Arana.