The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin

Cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
286 pages
published in 1969

Last year I discovered I read why too few science fiction books written by women and started making up for this lack by (re)reading some favourite writers. With the new year and following the example of several fellow science fiction bloggers, I decided to approach this more systemically, by pledging to read at least one science fiction or fantasy book by a female writer each month. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first and I choose it because it was a well respected classic novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, I had never managed finish before, despite having tried three or four times and as important, it was short.

Since The Left Hand of Darkness is such a well known work, over forty years old and discussed and summarised extensively during that time, you can’t help but come to it with certain preconceptions about it. The most important of which you’ll have to let go if you want to get the shape of the true book. This is not a feminist science fiction novel. It’s a novel about gender and gender expectations and the role our assumptions of having two separate sexes each with their own character, strength and weakness play in our societies, but it’s not feminist, unless every book about gender is by definition feminist. What you actually get in this story is a fairly traditional view of gender, as I’ll try to show.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on Gethen, or Winter, where its humans are sexless for the best part of each month, but enter into a state of sexuality roughly once every twentyeight days, when they can turn either male or female, depending on circumstances. This is called Kemmer; their normal state is somer. If there’s nobody around who’s also in kemmer, nothing happens, but if a receptive partner is found, they synchronise: one becomes male, one female and can concieve, with the female partner staying female until her baby is born and weaned. Who gets to be male and who female can differ from kemmer to kemmer and it’s fairly usual to have both fathered and born children. When not in kemmer no sexual characteristics are present and the question of sex is completely absent from daily life in those periods.

Into this world comes Genly Ai, First Envoy of the Ekumen, the eightythree worlds of humanity, to make the existence of these worlds known on Gethen and offer its nations membership in it. The Ekumen always sents its envoys alone, as one man alone clearly cannot be a threat. Genly has landed in Karhide, not so much a nation as a family argument, as said by Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, its prime minister at the start of the story. Nominally a kingdom, it is actually a mishmash of various political-economic units only lightly held together, with most people’s alliance to the heart, the fundamental unit of Gethen social organisation, halfway between a family and a clan. Genly through Estraven has been trying to get an audience with the king, but when this finally happen it does not end well, while Estraven meanwhile is branded a traitor and has to flee to Karhide’s main rival country, Orgoreyn, far more developed as a nation. In response Genly leaves the capital and travels Karhide, before leaving it for Orgoreyn. This is at first far more receptive to his message, but shifts in internal polices land him in a workcamp, from which he’s rescued by Estraven and together they flee north, over the ice back towards Karhide.

Most of this story is told by Genly, though several chapters are also narrated by Estraven. In both cases, as in the extracts from folk tales, Ekumen reports on Gethen etc. LeGuin also uses, people are consistantly refered to as “he” or “him”, instead of a gender neutral “it” or “they”. As LeGuin admitted later, this is a mistake, as it does make the Genthian people more male than they are supposed to be. Worse, I got the impression that most of the time when Genly notices their more female aspects, it’s shown as a negative. For instance, when Genly is in the work camp, this is what he writes about the guards:

The guards were seldom harsh and never cruel. They tended to be stolid, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate — not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.

Excellent writing and you can see exactly what he means, but every time Genly compares a genthenian to a woman, it’s in this negative vein. Hardly feminist, but it fits in with some of the other glimpses at LeGuin’s worldview from the time, e.g. in the Earthsea novels with its distrust of woman’s magic. LeGuin here is, consciously or subconsciously, much more conservative in her gender views than she would be.

Despite this The Left Hand of Darkness is a great novel, as long as you don’t want it to be something it isn’t. The gender aspects of it tend to overshadow the other themes in the novel, the creativity LeGuin has invested in making Gethen and especially Karhide real. Her anthropological background must’ve helped with this. You can see that e.g. shifgrethor, the Karhidian idea of honour and how it can be added to or substracted from in interactions with others, is inspired by really existing codes of honour, but it’s far from the usual orientalist cliches of thinly disguised Japanese in Space ™. In the same way I got a real sense of place, a sense that this is a planet and not just a stageset for the hero to have his adventures on.

Not bad for a book I had to force myself to read.

3 thoughts on “The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin

  1. Or Genly is a person with preconceptions. And the male wizards in Earthsea make quite a mess, while the priestess in the second book is quite the heroine.
    Feminism as more than “all men are bastards”, instead challenging our pre-conceptions that attributes can be assigned to one gender or the other.
    I think the Pervert in the Yomeshta ritual was permanently male, but no matter.

  2. I just finished The Left Hand of Darkness as well. I agree that a “feminist” book would not have such a negative view of women or of traits considered traditionally female. I disagree with skidmarx assessment — I did consider that the book is written from Genly’s point of view. However, if Genly is supposedly a man of his time (sometime in the Terran future), where men and women are supposedly considered “equals”, why do his attitudes about women reflect the late 1960s? Some of Genly’s observations would be considered retro even today. Indeed, feminism is more than “all men are bastards”, but LeGuin/Genly implies that, for example, a traditionally feminine approach to the world (e.g., addressing conflict in ways other than waging wars) is somehow inferior to a traditionally masculine approach to the world. And frankly, I don’t think that’s a feminist concept at all!
    I can’t imagine any science fiction writer who seriously considers gender roles in the future would believe that they would be the same as the time s/he is writing in.
    As for female science fiction writers, I think that Octavia Butler did a great job of addressing issues of gender roles, as well as issues of race and class in her books.

  3. I’ve never found The Left Hand of Darkness particularly challenging on the topic of gender. But although I agree with her on many topics, I’ve never felt that Le Guin plays fair when she does break out of her original perceptions of gender roles. Tehanu, in particular, feels to me like one of those “men can be evil but women are never worse than misguided” stories, where the author’s thumb is firmly on the scales.

    Having said that, Left Hand is one I reread pretty much every year. It’s an excellent meditation on different flavors of foreignness and adaptation. Both Genly and Estraven leave their native contexts, and Le Guin does a very good job of showing the kind of intense vulnerability that creates. Then they both leave human society entirely, when they become exiles from their entire species on the Ice. Sometimes, as a lesser expat myself, I find that section almost impossible to read.

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