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One Good Thing: The Left Hand of Darkness showed us that the greatest romances in life can be friendships

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 sci-fi tour de force can still teach us something about human connection.

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The cover for the 1969 version of The Left Hand of Darkness.
Walker & Company (NYC)

Not everyone celebrates Valentine’s Day — some folks will opt to celebrate Galentine’s or Palentine’s with their friends instead. Nowadays, more and more people are reconsidering prevailing ideas of who the significant others in our lives should be — particularly by choosing lifelong relationships with friends, as chosen family, and by radically challenging the accepted norms of intimacy and romance (notably in queerplatonic relationships).

Indeed, what if our biggest romances were not with romantic partners, but instead with our best friends? In The Left Hand of Darkness, famed novelist Ursula K. Le Guin depicts just such a possibility through the relationship between Genly Ai and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.

What we think of as “romance” is usually just a story about two people (typically cisgender and heterosexual men and women) falling in romantic love, and entering into an exclusive (and often sexual) romantic relationship (particularly marriage). This narrow conception of romance in society is known as amatonormativity. As Rice University philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake argues in her book Minimizing Marriage, we are all pressured to pursue amatonormativity in our own lives. This happens at the expense of other relationships, such as our friendships and our relationships with ourselves.

The Left Hand of Darkness fundamentally challenges amatonormativity. The story is premised on Ai, the Earth-born protagonist, attempting to get the planet of Gethen to join the Ekumen, an intergalactic alliance. Through his envoy mission to build connections and trust with the human-like Gethenians — including one Gethenian leader in particular, Estraven — Le Guin asks: What if an entire society was built without formal marriage, child rearing, or relationship roles? What if we had profoundly deep yet non-romantic relationships outside the binary roles of “man” and “woman”? Over time, Ai realizes that he must let go of his preconceived notions on gender, sex, and relationships in order to really understand and communicate with Estraven.

The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci-fi tour de force — which grapples with topics like first contact, nationalism, Taoist philosophy, and prophecy — is, at its core, a story about connection, and the difficulty of communicating and building relationships with other people. The story’s poignancy comes from Ai and Estraven working through mutual misunderstanding and cultural and linguistic gaps to build a relationship of profound trust, acceptance, and love. It’s been over 50 years since the book’s release in 1969, but the romance between Ai and Estraven continues to serve as an inspiration for becoming intimate beyond amatonormative ideas of soulmates and marriage, and has lessons anyone can strive for in their own relationships.

Initially, Ai is unable to connect with and trust Estraven, because the latter, like all Gethenians, is androgynous; neither “male” nor “female” as humans from Earth are assigned at birth. (Note: Le Guin uses “he/his/him” pronouns to refer to the Gethenians because at the time she wrote the novel, she felt they were “genuinely generic.” After facing much criticism and self-reflection, she later came to have second thoughts about that choice.) As Ai notes over dinner with Estraven in the very first chapter:

“… I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly … Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman … and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness.”

It becomes apparent that Ai has a serious sexism, misogyny, and homophobia problem, and this directly gets in the way of his job of communicating with the Gethenians and gaining their confidence. Writer Charlie Jane Anders observed that “[Ai is] curious and open-minded about everything, except for the huge areas where his mind has been long since closed.”

Estraven, meanwhile, is a steadfast ally to Ai in his mission of connecting Gethen to the Ekumen. At great personal sacrifice, he supports Ai throughout the story, although the latter does not realize this until much later. Estraven has difficulty conveying his intentions because of Gethenian social codes that Ai does not fully comprehend. On top of that, Ai communicates with Estraven in ways that come off as arrogant, obtuse, and even insulting. Estraven eventually realizes that “[Ai] is ignorant of us: we of him.”

Due to said ignorance, Ai ends up in a prison farm. Estraven saves him from certain death and the story reaches its climax as the two must traverse a massive, glacial tundra to escape back to Estraven’s country. It is here, hauling a sledge, gear, and themselves across hundreds of miles of Arctic desert for months, that the two work through their long-held misunderstandings and begin to truly understand one another. Particularly, as Estraven works to communicate in ways easier for Ai to grasp, Ai realizes that he has to curb his gendered views and masculine insecurities to get closer to Estraven. When he gets sick or exhausted, Ai learns to appreciate Estraven’s concern and not take offense to it, as well as be more honest about his own limits.

And it is during their shared sub-Arctic isolation that Ai finally comes to see Estraven as he had always wanted to be seen:

“Until then I had … refused [Estraven] his own reality … he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who … [gave] me entire personal loyalty, and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance … I had been afraid to … give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.”

What’s profound about Ai and Estraven’s relationship is that they get closer as they get past amatonormative norms of what it means to be intimate. Although worn down to the bone, they learn to communicate more in fewer words, overcoming many close calls on the ice through mutual trust. Strikingly, while there is sexual tension, they choose not to have sex with one another, and — contrary to everything we have been taught about romance — that actually makes them trust each other more:

“For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from the sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of friendship between us rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love.”

The book’s title is emblematic of their relationship, as they transcend thinking of the other person as an unintelligible alien and instead come to view one another as a friend and partner — as their left hand. And through their romance, Le Guin explores a world beyond the constraints of gender and sex, as well as beyond the cultural limitations we impose on our relationships based on those things. As Ai realizes at the end of the story, true connection comes when we not only adjust to another’s world, but also unsettle our own bodies and realities to make room for that world.

Ultimately, The Left Hand of Darkness teaches us that we are each alien to one another — inhabiting a vast, unique cosmos in space that others can barely hope to comprehend when crossing paths. But in the deep expanse of that cold darkness, simultaneously, always, exist the infinite bright stars of possibility to build true connection and warmth.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is available everywhere books are sold. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.