Back in my review for the classic sci-fi novel Solaris, I closed by admiring that book’s ability to show how hard it would really be to communicate with any extraterrestrials if/when we met them. That book is a beautifully tragic example of both humans and a non-humanoid alien trying their best, but not being able to make sense to each other.
But even if we assume away the biological barriers and encounter a basically humanoid alien, and then also assume away the inevitable language barrier (perhaps using the handy “universal translator” trope), there still could be some pretty large cultural differences to impede communication.
Star Trek: The Next Generation delved into this kind of story in the classic episode Darmok, wherein an alien race could be translated to English but spoke purely in allegory that confused the crew of the Enterprise. It took the whole episode for them to understand how to communicate and work together.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness beautifully takes the exploration further, describing the diplomatic efforts of Genly Ai, a human envoy to a planet called Winter. Genly has no trouble achieving basic communication with the humanoid inhabitants of Winter, but struggles to understand the unspoken meaning of comments and gestures, fleshed out in the recounting of several myths from Winter and embodied by the concept of “Shifgrethor.”
In other words, while Solaris documented its characters trying to get their communication from zero to one, Left Hand of Darkness is about trying to get from nine to ten.
In several instances, main characters Genly and Estraven (a Winter native) exchange words but walk away from the conversation with entirely different understandings of what occurred. Over time, their repeated, frustrated efforts begin to piece together some connection. Their journey together as they try to establish diplomatic ties makes for beautiful reading.
Meanwhile, I haven’t even mentioned a pretty core aspect of the culture on Winter: the inhabitants are mostly asexual, only taking on male or female reproductive biology for brief periods in a cycle called “kemmer.”
The result is a society far less concerned with sex than our own. They view Genly, a human male, as if he’s an animal obsessed with sex for being in “permanent kemmer.” And, while the plot shows that their societal capacity for violence is still considerable, in general there are far fewer wars and far less violence than in our own society.
This is really accurate to real life: studies have shown that one of the best predictors of inter- and intranational violence is the maltreatment of women in a society. Meanwhile, 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. So when Le Guin envisions a world like the one on Winter, where inhabitants change gender often and usually don’t have one at all, she is able to powerfully challenge the reader to imagine the more diplomatic and cultural conflicts that come after war is reduced.
I really enjoyed reading this book and exploring all the cultural twists and turns in it. The depth of Le Guin’s worldbuilding accomplishment is really a joy to consider. Like the best science fiction, it leaves a few trails for the reader to wonder about on their own. I recommend it!